TECH | Sep 20, 2016

Banzi: the future of the IoT also originates from Open Hardware

Massimo Banzi, co-fonder of the Arduino project, talks about the IoT development and how Open Hardware and Openness can support in general the innovation processes.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is worth 2 billion Euro on the market. In the last year every day, over 5 and a half million new objects are connected to the Internet. The latest forecasts and studies talk about nearly 21 billion connected by 2020. Also growing  is the number of startups that develop innovative solutions, leveraging technologies from the Internet of Things, thanks also to open hardware technologies like Arduino.

Arduino is a small electronic card used to quickly  create prototypes for hobby, educational and professional purposes. With Arduino, quick and simple small devices such as controllers of lights, of motor speed, light sensors, temperature and humidity and many other projects that use sensors, actuators and communication with other devices, can be produced. It is equipped with a simple, integrated development environment for programming, developed with free software. It is one of the most important projects (if not the most important) in open hardware. To better understand the history and developments of the project we spoke  with Massimo Banzi, co-founder of the Arduino project, Interaction Designer, educator and Open Hardware supporter.


What makes Arduino for Iot Open, Sustainable and Fair?

We tried to introduce the principles of open, sustainable and fair, to respect the lives and rights of people who use products made with Arduino. The challenge is to be able to understand how electronics and hardware can become good, clean and fair.
Arduino-based platforms are all open source, with freely available projects  (and this also prevents violation of user privacy). All products related to the IoT pose a significant problem regarding the information they collect on our lives. All products connected to the network are usually coupled to a variety of cloud services and APIs. Often their basic functionality depends precisely on those services for the collection of our data.
This data is often extracted from the sensors of objects that we have at home or the office, in order to understand behavior, habits and to map us, to improve for example the production and sale of a product. However, if this data is cross-referenced with other information, such as for example when we surf the internet, highlighting our preferences and tastes, we significantly increase the mapping precision of our profile, not only as users but also as people.
Today this is one of the biggest risks: in smartphones in fact, what happens is that if an application wants to use the camera it makes a request, while if a “smart” object has to use a sensor to function it does so without first asking permission.
We made the choice therefore  to prioritize the open-source philosophy, also in order to implement a virtuous circle on the issue of diversity  and ensure that as many people as possible can innovate in this field. There is a diversity problem if we think of developers or electronic engineers: they tend to be all white males. We therefore asked ourselves how we could exploit people’s diversity to the benefit of innovation and the technology itself.
We believe that the best way to promote diversity in innovation is to build tools and technologies that can be used by as many people as possible, even without special technical skills. The more people have access to technology, the more innovative and different the ideas in circulation will become. The use of Arduino enables and supports democratic innovation.

What  potential does Arduino have for businesses?

Undoubtedly the most exemplary products in this sense are the 3D printers. Many of the 3D printers on the market are derived from a project called  RepRap and have an Arduino motherboard.
These 3D printers have simplified innovation in the industrial  sector: I have all the information on them to enable inventing another machine, I can therefore use Arduino and what the community of makers have produced for other industrial machines, reusing codes, cards, and the rest of the work already done by others, thus optimizing resources.
We recently launched an Mxr1000 card, approximately 25 x 60 mm, containing a Wi-Fi connection as the main processor and a system to handle rechargeable batteries via USB and chips for secure encryption.
Using this card it is easy to create and monitor sensors and quickly move to the construction of connected objects. Companies can thus implement their own machines using ready-made projects.

How important are ecosystems for open data?

Reading several studies in reference to IoT developers, it is interesting to note that most use open source software. This however doesn’t mean that everything should be free,  rather an open ecosystem, but it is essential that the data exchange format is in both open and interoperable format. The fact that large web applications can talk to each other is in itself a positive change, allowing the invention of things that assemble information arising from different sources.
The open hardware platforms have the advantage of accelerating innovation in the electronics  industry: a team of people without great hardware experience has the opportunity to study, modify, reuse parts built by others.
This model is an innovation accelerator. Further aspects to be considered are the diversified costs and readiness to be able to enter the market quickly, for example cutting through the prototype phase, thus saving time, money and resources.

Are Italian companies ready for Open Hardware?

In Italy there are many companies that use advanced and innovative technologies. They are probably at a disadvantage due to being small, in that with certain types of innovation, international competition is not possible, which is why our companies have had more difficulties than those in other countries.
From other points of view, Italy is a bit strange as a country: on a global level it has incredibly innovative companies (such as DVSS, among the first on the 3D printer market) along with  companies that are not able to innovate and who definitely must be helped. In this sense, the IoT provides many opportunities for businesses.
Germany for example has chosen a very structured approach to implementing Industry 4.0, creating a chain to support their companies and creating an ecosystem of technologies, protocols, consortia, with links between research and products that will support businesses. In Italy we do not have this type of structure.
I also get the impression that often in our country there is a lack of self-esteem: companies do not feel themselves to be ‘up to scratch’ and find it hard to make progress, contenting themselves with limited, reduced objectives, not thinking big. Here in the USA when I participate in the Maker Faire, the will to emerge and the strength of even the most simple ideas are already structured with entrepreneurial goals, regardless if they have achieved something really interesting. In this sense, perhaps there is also a cultural aspect to examine: for example, in the USA being an entrepreneur and the ability to make it on your own are often celebrated by the press and society. In Italy it seems to me that entrepreneurs are only mentioned for negative actions or situations (lay-offs, closures, bankruptcies, corruption, tax evasion).
In the international technology companies I work with, I often encounter highly valuable Italian professionals and this is why we should make better  use of these resources by offering  better conditions to develop the market.

How can the relationship between IoT and Data Growth be best managed?

There is a lot of talk about Big Data and unstructured data. It is evident that the IoT produces and will produce ever-increasing volumes of data. If for example, within cities, we activate sensors of various types, from the brightness of lamp posts, to water monitoring, mobility, etc..  that measure and collect information all day, these sensors will generate an enormous amount of data.
So this poses a problem related to the extraction of information that does not culminate in the violation or infringement of individual privacy and in that sense there is ever increasing attention on the issue of monitoring individuals.
From a more technological point of view, there is also the problem of how to understand something important by loading only small, fragmented data that individually means little or nothing. In this sense, we are witnessing an important development in machine learning or rather systems that enable computers to understand and extract useful information from large masses of data.
Undoubtedly this is an important  scenario for the future: using this type of platform it is in fact possible to understand the usefulness of unstructured data; it is no accident that the major players in the market, from Facebook to Google, are investing in machine learning systems and have acquired at least two or three startups that are developing Artificial Intelligence projects.

Emma Pietrafesa