Ecosystems are not just about plants and bees

The biblical story of the tower of Babel is fascinating. Initially, it appears to warn mankind against the hubris of thinking that G-d is physically reachable. The punishment, if it is a punishment, is to scramble the languages of the people involved. This is possibly meant as an historical explanation for the origin of so many apparently unique languages. I say apparently, because there are still researchers looking to find some form of proto language that would be the mother of all languages. And if such a language is ever found, and the path to multiple languages is discovered, then this would be yet another example of how the Bible is not an historical text, but a teacher of lessons to the human race.

What is the lesson? Why have so many languages? Our recent history has taught us that despite so many different languages in the world, we have succeeded in bringing groups of innovators together, who have created magic. Admittedly, English has become the de facto universal language, and the means by which most science is transmitted. But my daughter is studying engineering in Hebrew, and children from other countries are learning science in their own languages. The human mind can master multiple languages so that ancient documents can be read in their original ancient Greek and Ethiopic.

So to put it bluntly, all G-d did was create a short lived stumbling block. And mankind has built machines that can reach the skies despite the multiplicity of languages spoken by the engineers behind such projects. Perhaps then, the message of the tower of Babel is totally different. The purpose of splitting people into groups based on language, may have had the purpose of forcing disparate groups to find a common language with others. Many times (but not always), learning the language of others breeds friendship. Once one understands a new language, it is possible to learn about another’s culture, from the point of view of respect, not with the intention of war. Perhaps the message of the tower of Babel was to teach us that we have to find a way back from confusion, no matter what the origin. And this message has tremendous significance in today’s era of multiple computerized environments. (This Dvar Torah is courtesy of the most recent episode of the X-Files).

In the world of technology, certain terms become commonly used [if not overused] even before they refer to an existing entity. A perfect example is the term IoT or Internet of Things. Firstly, it is often still necessary to explain what IoT even means. This is in contrast to the way in which IoT is referred to when sitting in a technology related conference, where it is assumed that attendees understand the full import of IoT.

There are simple and complex explanations for what IoT really is, which reflects a significant amount of ambiguity even amongst the top technology groups. In my mind, IoT refers to the capability of accessing and manipulating any and all things via a computer based interface. So, IoT could refer to all of the components of a smart house being controlled remotely via an iPad. It could as well refer to a fleet of driverless cars delivering materials all around the country, all constantly monitored and managed from a single central console.

Clearly, for IoT to be successful, there has to be a standard means of communication between all of the components. While it is true that an individual could purchase all of the involved parts of an IoT system from a single manufacturer, in practice this is not what happens. Let’s go back to the smart home example. In most cases, people will buy a refrigerator and a stove and a microwave at different times, and from different companies. It could very well be that the decision to buy the stove from one producer and the microwave from another, is that each of these devices is best-of-breed; it is by no means self-evident that the company that makes the top quality microwave also makes the top quality stove. Therefore, for IoT to succeed, any stove would need to be able to communicate with any microwave.

Getting different companies to produce products that communicate via some universal and common language is by no means simple. Many companies will purposely try to avoid the ability  for a user to intermix products from different producers. A company that sells microwaves very much wants to encourage consumers to buy all of their electronic needs from that same company. One way of doing so is by limiting IoT connectivity to only the same company’s devices. But consumers are not that easily fooled. If a company overtly tries to lock consumers into a specific set of products, this could actually be seen as an unfair business practice. There would be consumers who would purposely avoid buying from the given company because of this practice.

In the computer hardware and software world, there has been a coming to terms with the reality that being open is better for business. Giants in this field such as Apple, Google and Microsoft, are sharing software tools on a scale that was previously unimaginable. Microsoft Office works on iOS and Android. Despite the fact that Microsoft office is still considered the standard for office-based tools, Microsoft recognized that forcing users to purchase Windows-based machines had a negative effect.

Personally, I use Windows on my main machine, but all of my other devices are Android-based. I use Google Drive and Google Docs exclusively. But when I get a document in Microsoft Word or Excel, I am able to open the document, modify it and return it. If I was forced to use only Microsoft products in my day-to-day work, I would make a greater effort to get the people I work with to switch over to Google. While each mega company wants to own the world, there is enough business to go around. So, being able to work on my off-site documents via an Apple machine, Microsoft tablet or Android phone, makes me feel respected as a user. It also makes me far more willing to buy more products, without worrying that such products will be incompatible with my work environment and collection of documents.

In the world of medicine, the lack of universality in the way medical data is stored, continues to be a huge problem when managing patients who have received parts of their care across different institutions. Something as simple as relaying the list of medications that a patient is presently taking is sometimes more easily done via pen and paper, than by trying to share the information from within one hospital’s EHR.

There is a very strong push these days for building virtual bridges between medical systems. The intent is that information that was recorded in one institution should be easily and quickly transferred to a different institution in which the patient is presently residing. This process of sharing data is so critical and so desperately needed across the entire medical world, that there is a multibillion-dollar business world built around the software that actually handles the exchange of data.

The top EHR companies have finally accepted that they must be willing to share the data they have collected. Of course, this sharing has to be done in a secure and reliable fashion. But even the top EHR company (EPIC) cannot ignore the demand for sharing data. It’s fair to say that most doctors dream of a day when they can just type in an identifier for a patient and view a well structured summary of the patient’s medical history, which includes parts that come from multiple institutions and private physicians.

Being able to view an all-in-one summary will also be of great benefit to the patients themselves. A patient will be able to personally review their history and identify areas which have not received the proper care. In cases where a patient does not fully understand the medical terminology, there would now be a major drive to create software that translates medical terminology into plain English. Such a system would greatly increase patient involvement in their own care and reduce a great deal of anxiety about that care. More so, once the patient understands all of the elements of their care, the patient may take it on themselves to further investigate certain diseases and the treatment for these diseases. With today’s tools for doing online research, a patient could quickly become a world expert in their own disease and then offer options to the physicians that were not considered before. Sharing of data leads to patient empowerment.

In the world of technology, the term ecosystem is generally used to describe a group of devices and software that share an infrastructure. Imagine a forest where the trees and plant life are inedible by the animals in the forest, and conversely the animals regularly cause damage to the plant life. It seems pretty clear that such an ecosystem would not succeed. Contrarily, if the animals are able to eat the plant life and are in turn able to contribute to the continued growth of the plants and trees, this would make for a successful forest. Referring back to IoT, if every device is able to share information with every other device, independent of manufacturer, the sum total of all of these devices would be a very powerful ecosystem. From a single tablet [independent of type], one could manage all of the electrical items in a house [independent of their manufacturers].

There are already a number of software and hardware systems that provide a bridge between IoT devices, but not necessarily every type of device. The makers of this bridging hardware and software are definitely hoping that their system will become the standard for all types of inter-device communication. In reality, there is a good chance that two or three different communication platforms will persist. If that is the case, then device manufacturers will have to make a choice – whether to include all possible forms of communication within their products, or to bet on one type of communication platform.

Many years ago, getting a home computer was an event that opened up the world to users. Then the Internet came along and the idea of not being connected, was almost intolerable. I, like many other people, become nearly frozen when my Internet connection goes down. I stare at my screens wondering what I can do in off-line mode, and further wondering how I ever got anything done in off-line mode. The Internet is definitely an ecosystem that reaches out to every device, big and small. These days, creating a device that uses some type of proprietary Internet system would quickly die out. The Internet is so ingrained in everything we do that, while it may evolve dramatically over time, will remain the infrastructure for almost everything we do.

Consciously choosing software and devices that link to an established ecosystem is now considered the best approach to securing the greatest productivity and reach. Other fledgling ecosystems are desperately trying to mimic such success. I have already described how critical this is in the medical field. But the truth is that working within a common ecosystem is critical for practically every business in the world.

When we all share, we all benefit. This was true in kindergarten and it is definitely true today.

Thanks for listening


About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.