The internet of humans

Dr. Markus Weinberger, Director of the Bosch IoT Lab in Switzerland, on how the Internet of Things will change the way we work
Humans in the Internet of Things

Words:Dr. Markus Weinberger, Bosch IoT Lab
Illustration:Ben Morris

A decade ago a member of the Bosch Board of Management called Volkmar Denner realised the potential of the Internet of Things (IoT), not just to his own organization but to the world as he knew it. Today, the IoT has become one of the organisation’s primary strategic focuses. But where does IoT fit in with business, and how will it change the way we actually work? We hear from Dr. Markus Weinberger, Director of the Bosch IoT Lab in Switzerland.

I’ve been fascinated by the internet for years; fascinated by the impact it has on our society and on the way we work together. From this interest, and at some point in time, I recognised that the internet was no longer only about connecting people but about connecting ‘things’ – inanimate objects. I had the feeling that, as the internet once did, the IoT would induce significant changes to many aspects of our lives.

The same thinking inspired the establishment of the Bosch IoT Lab. Bosch has, as an organisation, been looking into the IoT for some time; with its technical orientation it was well equipped to handle the technical aspects of the IoT. The question was, what were the applications for the technology, and would they make sense from an economic perspective?

The Bosch IoT Lab, then, is a collaboration between Bosch and the University of St. Gallen, committed to addressing these questions. Our team – an interdisciplinary group which includes seven PhD students specialising in fields ranging from computing science and physics to business and psychology – engineers and implements IoT applications. Not all of the applications we develop become commercialised, but we aim to field test them at the very least, certainly when it comes to smart home technologies and mobility. Thanks to the diversity of the team here, we’re able to look at the technology from as many different angles and perspectives as possible, and one aspect in focus just now is the relationship between business models and IoT.

Smart things

The IoT is built around the idea that we can connect ‘things’ to the internet. It’s actually not a new concept; aeroplanes, for example, have been connected to backend infrastructure for some forty years. Every time one takes off, a data set is being sent to backend infrastructure. Every time one touches down, a data set is being sent again.

So what’s needed to connect something via the internet? The first aspect is sensors, implemented or integrated into the thing in question. Next, that thing needs microprocessors and computing power. And finally, it needs connectivity. All three of these enablers are becoming cheaper in cost, smaller in both size and volume, and more efficient in terms of energy consumption. As a result it’s become possible that, at some point in time, everything will be connected to the internet. To use a familiar term, everything will become ‘smart’.

Consider a standard light bulb and imagine extending it with sensors, local computing  power (so an implemented microprocessor) and connectivity. That light bulb could be mounted in a room and produce light, so the very same functionality that a light bulb has ever had. Yet at the same time, due to its sensors, its computing power and its connectivity, it could be leveraged to provide additional services – for example, it could be adopted for security purposes. So, with this light bulb you have the physical, local aspect, and the digital, security service.

By means of the IoT we can harvest more data about employees and how they behave than ever before

High resolution management

In the digital world, the concept of ‘high resolution management’ is quite dominant, especially in the likes of online advertising. If you’re operating a website or an e-commerce site, you’re able to monitor and measure data on all aspects of your business. You can see who’s visiting, discover where they’ve come from, work out which products they’re looking at, learn which ones they tend to favour, and find out how long they’ve stayed. All of these aspects can be analysed in detail and the data thus afforded leveraged to improve and optimise your business.

Not so if you run a physical operation. Up to now you’ve not had access to the same types and amounts of data. You might know how many people are entering your store but you don’t know where these people are coming from, and you also don’t know what products they’re looking at. You might know what products they’re buying but you don’t see what products they’re looking at without buying.

Now, with the IoT, people running physical operations have the means to access equal types and amounts of data as people running digital ones – and possibly even in real time. Of course, this then provides much greater management capabilities, making it possible for businesses to improve and optimise their offerings and value propositions much more readily than they have in the past.

But it’s not just sales and marketing which can be affected by high resolution management – every sector of business stands to benefit, not least human resources. By means of the IoT we can harvest more data about employees and how they behave than ever before. Of course, this has strong implications in terms of privacy and data protection, but on a purely technical level the IoT can absolutely be applied to the human resources sector; with more data we could manage human resources in completely different ways.

For example, some of my colleagues at the University carried out an experiment to monitor employee stress levels just by looking at computer mouse-handling. The thinking was that stress could be detected by measuring how precisely the employees navigated the cursor, with the assumption that if they are stressed they will navigate less precisely than if they are relaxed. Of course, there’s still a lot of hypothesis here, and correlations need to be proved, but if the assumption is accurate then this one example could provide employers with detailed, real-time information about employee stress levels which could then be acted upon accordingly.

Business operations can be similarly affected. It’s often the case that operations or work procedures are only allowed to be performed by certain personnel. Imagine implementing systems in production lines that are able to identify specific workers by means of certain badges, and only if the system knows that this specific worker is qualified to perform a certain procedure or operate a certain tool does the equipment work at all. So safety comes into the equation, but also quality control; only an employee qualified to do a certain procedure or operate a certain tool can do so, thus ensuring quality production.

Likewise, certain work environments have restrictions. Take construction sites – there might be restrictions in place dictating how long employees can be exposed to certain levels of vibration or noise, and that’s difficult to track. Extend employees with sensors, however, and you can readily track exposure levels and times in order to protect employee health.

There are even economic implications. Lorry drivers could potentially be connected to sensors that measure vital signs so that their work times can be governed much more accurately than by manual tachometers. We might be able to tell when a lorry driver needs a break, or when he or she doesn’t actually need one, thus optimising employee output.

Smart employees, but humans all the same

With more data comes more responsibility, and human resources departments are absolutely going to have to build up their abilities to leverage this. Think back to the aforementioned smart light bulb; in order to make it happen you need to address different layers in a value stack. You need to address the physical thing; you need to address the computing power and the sensors, to get them to work in the specific environment of a light bulb; and you need to manage the connectivity, so getting the data out of the light bulb and across to the backend infrastructure. Finally, you need to make sense of all of the data. After all, just having data sitting in a database is worth nothing.

Needless to say, then, businesses need to address these different levels and ensure they have the capabilities to do so. Human resources departments are going to have to build up the ability to manage increasing levels of data and leverage it to its full potential. Businesses need to have people capable of extracting useful information and able to derive managerial implications from that.

It is still important, however, from an HR manager’s perspective, to realise that human resources departments need, by their very definition, to be managed by humans, not computers. For sure, things like access control, time stamping and time tracking will become even more automated than they are today through the IoT, but ultimately taking care of employees’ needs is a very individual thing – and I find it difficult to imagine that this will ever be taken over by pure technology.

That’s not to say that businesses shouldn’t be thinking about the implications of the IoT, though – the opposite is true. This is an absolute must from my perspective. You could even put it this way: to ask whether the IoT is going to impact business is the same as going back fifteen years and asking whether businesses needed to think about the impact of the internet itself.

About the author

Dr. Markus Weinberger is the Director of the Bosch Internet of Things & Services Lab at the University of St. Gallen. He joined Bosch in 1998. Since then he gained experience in such different fields as driver assistance systems, internal auditing and engineering services. He worked in areas like ergonomics, calibration of electronic control units, project management, process management and Enterprise 2.0. Markus holds a PhD in Engineering from the Technische Universität München. He studied mechanical engineering in Munich and Trondheim, Norway. For more information on the IoT Lab work visit www.iot-lab.ch. To learn more about the smart bulb discussed in the article visit www.comfylight.com.

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