Technology is not meant to replace humans…

Steve Nguyen, Sr. Director of Marketing
November 14, 2016

When I started working in the controls industry 20 years ago, it was after a lifetime of tracking and trying new technology. New “stuff” tended to be my passion —from the first epoxy resin tennis racket to the first PCs with micro-channel architecture, to the world’s first laptop (the gigantic Compaq with the 4 inch amber screen). As a young man, I worked at the Sharper Image and sold the world’s first mountain bikes, bread makers, and even baby sound soothers. Even then, technology seemed to be the answer for everything.

By the time I joined Echelon —a true IoT pioneer—, I was convinced that instrumenting the built environment was the tipping point that would change the world. I could envision buildings that automatically incorporated wheelchair controllers for actions like calling elevators initiating a fire alarm. At that time hospital wards were already using technology to lock doors when babies got separated from their moms. We were able to build smart environments so we could stop worrying about aging loved ones or make street lights smart enough to dim 5% during evening rush hour (imperceptible to drivers but helped with slowing traffic) commutes.

Funny thing though, as we’ve moved to smarter and smarter buildings and the seemingly inevitable “IoT-ification” of life, we find that there’s a disconnect between cloud intelligence and the built environment. It’s as if we’ve hit our equivalent of the uncanny valley —the one that separates life-like robots from human acceptance. How is it, for instance, that a perfectly-optimized building system can be undermined by a poorly shaped hallway? The IoT devices and sensor networks all point to perfection in the environment, but people still complain that it’s stuffy. Or the fact that we can analyze terabytes of data and yet still can’t understand why our electric bills are high. It seems that we may be at the point where our software could use a little help.

The reality is that technology can only do so much. Maybe the guy in the basement is just what we need.

We are not alone. It’s estimated that within the music industry, there are maybe a dozen guys that power the playlists that make Apple Music truly engaging. Think about all that data from the +120M iPhones in the world and yet they cited a “very rare and hard to find team of music experts” as the partial justification for the $3B acquisition cost of Beats. Maybe we’ve come to the point of cloud-based intelligence where we just NEED humans(?). I joined BuildingIQ because I loved the closed-loop control aspects (the ability to analyze and predict the energy use in the building, and then control the HVAC system to optimize the energy use/cost and tenant comfort without human intervention) of the solution. At first, I thought we would move to eliminate human intervention, but I was wrong. I came to the realization that our value, and by extension the role of cloud-based analytics, is more than just closed-loop controls. A lot of our value rests in enabling local and remote human expertise. So we’re not just optimizing the BMS, we’re optimizing people. It sounds weird, but the interaction between human and building is so complex that one without the other is a recipe for failure. The intangible nuances of what makes us comfortable, happy, and productive, and how to go about achieving it, really does need the human touch.

Let’s explore, for instance, the notion that we’ve deployed a massive IoT network into a large building. Everything in the building is perfectly monitored via sensors and there’s a fair-to-high amount of control. I used to work in such a building and you know what? We still got out of our chairs to see what was going on. We still got too hot or too cold sitting in our offices. Not because we didn’t have five lighting settings and control over our individual office temperature—we had all that—it was because sometimes we just felt hot or cold for inexplicable reasons. And it was the Facilities guy that made it better. Sometimes it was a matter of him (or her) standing in the office and deciding that it was stuffy —sort of like the ultimate sensor. More often than not, even with massive instrumentation, the Facilities guy is the one that knows that the building just “isn’t working today.”

So, the lesson I’ve learned is that no matter how much tech we bring to the table or how much data we analyze, the human element can never really be overlooked or replaced. Instead, we need to augment and optimize what we’ve got for greater and greater efficiency.

So instead of trying to marginalize they guy in the basement, maybe we should embrace him, and give him the tools to get his job done.