Building the Google of Things

By Shamika Dighe

In 1999, Kevin Ashton, co-­founder and then executive director of the Auto­ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, coined the phrase “Internet of Things” to describe a technological ecosystem in which sensors and active data collection greatly diminished the human ­dependency of computers. Today, over a decade later, Google is embracing the prospect of an increasingly connected world and integrating the Internet of Things into its corporate strategy through the course of several strategic acquisitions.

Following the tech giant’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” Google’s ventures into home automation, advanced robotics, and artificial intelligence build a framework for a world in which computers are empowered to, as Kevin Ashton puts it, “see, hear, and smell the world for themselves.” 

What is the Internet of Things? 

Technology research firm Gartner defines the Internet of Things as “the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.” Systems in the Internet of Things use low­cost sensors like radio­-frequency identification (RFID) tags and micro electromechanical systems (MEMS) to monitor an object’s surroundings and capture data. In addition, an Internet of Things system often has actuators to enable a coordinated action as a result of the data processing. Although the Internet of Things is still in the early stages of adoption, the technology is being implemented with much success throughout the public and private sector. Manufacturers are optimizing product quality and operational efficiency by using visual sensors to track the flow of products through a factory floor. Shipping companies are using advanced trackers to provide customers with the ability to monitor a package’s physical conditions like temperature and humidity. Tech-­savvy cities, such as San Francisco, are using Internet of Things solutions to connect and manage public infrastructure, such as parking meters, to provide better service-­delivery to its residents. Even humans are a part of Internet of Things systems, through the use of wearable healthcare monitoring devices like smart heart rate monitors and fitness activity trackers.

GOOGLE’S RECENT ACQUISITIONS

Technology giants like Google have primarily used M&A deals to support their company’s core ­business. Apple’s iPhone 5S fingerprint scanner came from its acquisition of mobile security provider AuthenTec. Facebook used its acquisition of facial recognition company Face.com to bolster its photo-­tagging feature. However, many of Google’s latest acquisitions, which include eight robotics firms in 2013, indicate that Google is looking far beyond its core ­business. Through analyzing this group of recently purchased technologies, we uncover insights into how Google can use this technology to generate a more ­connected world.

Nest Labs Inc.

Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of smart thermostat maker Nest Labs Inc. is perhaps the most direct indication that Google can bring an Internet of Things ecosystem into our homes. Nest thermostats, which “learn” its users temperature preferences over time, are the first step to a connected home network. We could even see Google connect Nest technology with its home entertainment hardware, Chromecast, or even embed it with Google’s Android operating system.

When asked if Android could be the operating system for an Internet of Things system, Google CFO Patrick Pichette alluded that the success of a Google Internet of Things system will come from its ability to be supplemented by third ­party applications. He noted, “We should never think we have the monopoly of innovation. What really matters is you enable a couple of applications that you’re really excited about, but that mesh with so many others.”

Boston Dynamics

One of Google’s most exciting acquisitions of 2013 included that of Boston Dynamics, a company with strong ties to the US Department of Defense. Boston Dynamics is widely known for its animal-­like robots that swiftly cover uneven terrain and can run faster than Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man.

While it is unlikely that Google will soon provide personal robots for the consumer market, its drive in advanced robotics could be a way to garner the most advanced sensors, software, and machinery, to both supplement its existing business operations, such as improving automated factory processes, and implement in future Internet of Things endeavors. Advanced robots could form the machine-­to-­machine network of actuators that characterize an Internet of Things system.

DeepMind Technologies

Google’s more than $400 million acquisition of London­-based startup DeepMind Technologies marks a recent trend in tech acquisitions to amass experts in artificial intelligence. DeepMind is a research firm that specializes in reinforcement learning, which involves using an algorithmic approach to solve complex decision­making problems given limited feedback. DeepMind’s novel project using this technology is software that was able to master several Atari 2600 computer games using only the visual display of the game as input and no prior knowledge of how the games are played.

With such advancements in deep learning technology, Google positions itself to create new products that are better able understand and react to the external environment. Applications of this could range from software that better analyzes data and helps users make the most informed decisions, which would greatly complement a vast amount of Google’s existing products, such as Google Glass, and provide an intelligent backbone to connect future Internet of Things devices.

When we consider the variety of futuristic technologies that Google has collected throughout the years, it becomes apparent that a competitive advantage in implementing an Internet of Things system, should Google choose to do so, will come from Google’s ability to combine the strengths of its acquisitions. Google’s individual investments in Internet of Things technologies will provide the building blocks to create an even greater network of devices.

However, it will be several decades before consumers see a large ­scale, Google of Things ecosystem, as an Internet of Things solution like smart homes and autonomous vehicles will face several obstacles before achieving mass adoption. With the possibility of an increasingly digitized world come concerns of personal privacy, data security, and overall social autonomy. In addition, Internet of Things technologies will carry the cost of maintaining utility, as smart platforms will require constant software updates. Lastly, widespread adoption of an Internet of Things network will require scalability,­ affordable, easy to implement products.

According to McKinsey, machine-­to­-machine devices have experienced a 300% increase in the past 5 years. Furthermore, Cisco estimates that by 2020, 50 billion things will be connected to the Internet, resulting in an eventual $19 trillion Internet of Things market. Google has always been a first mover; by establishing the foundation for more Internet of Things products, the tech titan will be set to be a leader in this exciting new market.