In this column, Coursera President and Co-founder Daphne Koller explores the Internet of Things (IoT) movement with Bret Greenstein, Vice President of the Watson Internet of Things at IBM. IBM currently offers A developer's guide to the Internet of Things course on Coursera.

When we think of the most important technological innovations--electricity, the internet, smartphones--we often think of two concrete periods: before and after. But with the Internet of Things, one of the most rapidly growing technological spaces today, the division isn't so clear-cut. This is largely due to the fact that a great deal of IoT advancements are evolving behind the scenes, with organizations integrating new IoT capabilities into their goods and services in a manner so seamless that the end user barely takes note.

No one knows this better than Bret Greenstein, VP of IBM's Watson Internet of Things. On a day-to-day basis, Bret meets with some of the world's most innovative and well-known companies to help them capitalize on the latest IoT advancements to help deliver unprecedented new experiences to their customers.

Recently, Bret and I had the chance to discuss some of the most exciting things happening in IoT right now--including the latest devices, the power of Watson, and how anyone can get in on the ground floor.

What are the latest developments in IoT right now?

IoT has been growing for the past decade or so, but the emergence of the cloud is a very big and recent development. It offers incredible fodder for IoT solutions without requiring developers to bring in huge software stacks and enabling them to rapidly integrate many data sources. The truly leading companies are looking at how this information can drive some sort of new level of interaction and leveraging that. Think of thermostats, for example. They were always useful, but haven't ever been particularly interesting. All of a sudden, Nest came out with a connected thermostat. Now, you have a device that adjusts temperature according to your activity and gives you feedback on your energy consumption.

But the exciting part isn't the device itself. The Internet of Things is a bit of a misnomer--it's not about the things themselves, it's about the data that powers them. Developers who embrace what that data means and figure out how to extract value out of it are going to be at the forefront of innovation. This has already inspired a lot of innovation, but I think the best is yet to come.

Which areas and industries has IoT impacted the most?

I haven't found an industry yet that isn't going through some sort of IoT transformation: agriculture, health care, energy, aerospace and defense... you name it. Enterprises involved in those areas realize they have this amazing source of data that can improve any part of their business process, and that offers a huge ROI. IoT is also opening up a lot of space for businesses that can monetize data, build engagement and drive new services. With IoT, many businesses are finding they can engage with end users more easily through connected things and they can learn more about what their end users care about and want.

What does that look like--for businesses and consumers?

Take appliances. They have the potential to track an enormous amount of data about you, your home and your usage. That same data could be monetized in partnership with retail and service providers, so maybe, as you do laundry, your washing machine keeps track of your detergent consumption and orders it for you so that your consumables are delivered exactly as you need them without having to lift a finger. Or, with connectivity, those same appliances or other products could be sold as a service and enhanced and replaced over time (like a cable box), which allows the product itself to almost fade into the background while the manufacturer can focus on the service the product provides to their user.

One of IBM's most visible achievements in recent years is Watson. Is that effort related to IoT in any way?

Watson started out as a single computer designed to understand and answer questions--a lot of people recognize it from its early days on Jeopardy. But since then, it's become a set of machine learning technologies capable of recognizing and understanding data in a broad range of contexts. We're able to use the information it gathers from IoT settings to deliver new and better experiences, from diagnosing and treating diseases to analyzing the tone and sentiment of users through their voice, text and social media posts. We're bringing all of these different capabilities to the Cloud now, so individual developers can take this insight and apply it to their own IoT solutions.

Privacy sometimes comes up as a concern for consumers. How can companies maintain the boundary between obtaining useful information and not feeling too invasive?

Companies leveraging their end users' data know that if they start monitoring everything their users do, people probably won't want to buy their device in the first place. So a lot of organizations choose an opt-in model, where the user actively authorizes the release of their data in exchange for some sort of value proposition. Going back to that smart washing machine example, maybe you'd agree to let it analyze the color of your clothes in order to recommend the right temperature and save you money on your energy bill. It's really a mutually beneficial process. Manufacturers get to engage with their customers in a way they never could before, and consumers receive a lot of value so that they want to opt in in the first place.

Who are some of the real winners in the IoT space right now?

There's a lot of companies that are doing great things, but overall, I think developers are without question the biggest winners in IoT. In a lot of ways, it's like the early days of the internet. The first webmasters became superheroes in their companies because they were helping them revolutionize their business, and that's what's happening with IoT developers right now.

And you don't necessarily have to be a deep coder to get involved in IoT. Many developers create recipes for apps or technologies they've developed and share them for everyone else to build on. On top of that, a lot of cloud platforms and hardware are really affordable, and the barrier to entry is lower than it has ever been. I actually interviewed someone for a sales position recently who showed up in my office with a Raspberry Pi that he had connected wirelessly to the cloud through Wi-Fi. He's not even a coder, but he was able to follow a recipe and get it to work.

As IoT continues advancing, what are you most excited about?

I'm looking forward to how the proliferation of connected and smart devices and services will continue to help us work, travel and live better and easier. A lot of it is happening around us in ways we don't even notice. You can walk into a building now where the elevator has no buttons--you just say which floor you want to go to, and the elevator prioritizes which floors it stops at for the optimal traffic flow. You might think, "Huh, when did that happen?" It's not like smartphones, where they came out and everyone just had to buy one right away--these smarter things are starting to pervade our lives in a very subtle way. It'll get to a point where we'll look back 10 years from now and wonder how we ever got by without all these connected devices. Companies that embrace IoT are going to create things we haven't even imagined yet--and I'm really excited for that.

Published on: Aug 11, 2016
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of