The Internet of Things, or IoT, is a term heard a lot these days, but what exactly is it? At its most basic, the IoT is the connecting of things – people, computers, devices – through the Internet. People connect to other people via email, Skype, Twitter; people connect to things through computers, their cars, or phones; and things connect to other things, such as devices to servers for software updates.
IoT as an idea of connecting people and things has been around as long as the internet itself, but the term “Internet of Things” has only been with us since about 1999, when the term was coined by British technology pioneer, Kevin Ashton. But what is IoT as we define it today?
What is IoT?
IoT is the connecting of people and things via the Internet. But what kind of things? If it has an on/off switch, chances are it will eventually be capable of connecting to the Internet. Everything from your smart phones to watches to your home’s electrical system will connect, allowing you to remotely turn on and off lights or appliances. Even components within machines, such as your car’s engine, can be part of the IoT.
Gartner, an analyst firm, estimates that within the next five years, as many as 26 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. That’s an average of 3.7 devices for every person on earth. Cisco estimates that number to be as high as 50 billion, or more than 7 devices per person.
Imagine a highly-connected world with disparate devices storing, sharing, and using data for a myriad of purposes, optimizing human and electronic resources. Everything from a smooth commute to work to managing your personal health could lead to a sort of utopian future H.G. Wells couldn’t even begin to imagine. All of this has the potential to profoundly impact the way we live, work, and play.
How will it Impact you?
Our lives will definitely be more convenient the more things we have communicating with us and for us. We’re already seeing some applications of IoT in our day-to-day lives. Sensors in automobile tires alert drivers when their tire pressures are low; traffic overlays on vehicle GPS maps effortlessly route commuters around traffic jams; and manufacturers and retailers use RFID chips to manage the inventory and customer checkout processes.
While this technology is already in widespread use, how could emerging technology impact your life in say the next five or ten years? The possibilities are virtually endless; we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the IoT will allow us to do. Just a few ideas that have been suggested include:
- Smart cities with centralized monitoring and control over the infrastructure, allowing water to be directed away from flood-ravaged areas or to where it’s needed most in the case of a fire
- Intelligent routing of traffic during rush hour to prevent slowdowns and jams
- Balancing power production to meet peak demand without the threat of brownouts
- Doctors remotely monitoring and treating patients in hard-to-reach locations
- Energy-efficient homes and businesses that turn lights and appliances on and off with the movement of its occupants, significantly reducing power consumption
There’s no doubt there are applications we haven’t even imagined yet, but with so many possibilities for connecting our world around us, should we in fact connect everything?
What Should and Should Not be Connected?
The answer to this question is as varied as the human population itself. For every person who says having a connected refrigerator is a complete waste of technology, you’ll find plenty who say their IoT fridge is the best thing ever. You can even find more than a few people who say nothing should be connected, that connecting your devices is like inviting thieves into your home.
What should be connected is pretty subjective, but as we move forward, connecting potentially hundreds of billions of devices, we’ll need to be choosy about which ones take priority. Even with the possibility of endless IP addresses thanks to IPv6 technology, throughput restrictions are probably with us for a while, until the infrastructure catches up with demand. We’re still in the “hey wouldn’t it be cool of we did this” phase of IoT, but in the future, technologies that help us be better humans rather than entertain us could, and probably should, be the focus.
When it comes to what shouldn’t be connected, the opinions will once again vary greatly depending on whom you ask. Although you’ll probably find fairly broad consensus that connecting people is a bad idea. Implanting chips in human beings, even to track our children for safety reasons, crosses a line in most people’s minds. Just because you can connect something doesn’t mean you should. National security is another area we should think long and hard about before connecting, especially in light of all the recent hackings of government websites. Nothing on the Internet is 100% secure. Trade-offs will need to be made in order to balance the growing demand for IoT with maintaining privacy and security.
Big Data and Privacy
Two of the biggest concerns people have are privacy and security, although they go hand-in-hand. Giving Big Data access to our private data, habits, likes and dislikes, to use to market more things to us is something most people say turns them off. And yet, we’re quick to click that “Agree” button without ever reading most of the small text first.
With the boom of IoT, companies are moving away from traditional methods of reaching consumers, such as newspapers, magazines, and television, and turning to the Internet. This trend also allows them to more specifically target consumers.
With television programs, such as the Super Bowl with a worldwide audience of an estimated 110 million, commercials must cast a wide net, including everything from Go Daddy web hosting to Carl’s Jr. But how many of that 110 million need a domain name or eat fast food? With data mining, companies can send a targeted message directly to your phone or computer, knowing a coupon for 20% off Barnes & Noble will appeal to you.
The IoT creates the ability for Big Data to monitor, collect, measure, and analyze a growing amount of information on you by the websites you visit, the events you attend, the ads you click, and the things you “like” on Facebook. This inundation of data can be overwhelming, though, and companies will need to find ways to not only store all that information, but make sense of it. It’s not just businesses turning to IoT; politicians are increasingly using Big Data to help them target donors, craft campaigns, and even draft legislation that will appeal to their constituents.
With this kind of targeting, privacy and security of personal information is understandably a concern for most people. If the IRS can be hacked, can your fridge be next, providing someone with access to your entire home network? With the growth of IoT comes a swell of security threats from around the world, and there are no easy answers to this issue, but there are things that can be done.
Preventing and Pre-Empting the Threat of Hackers
As with any trend in technology, the IoT provides convenience at a cost. With the enormous scope of IoT, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to security. The type of information that flows to and from your connected fridge isn’t quite the same as the type of information that is generated by your city’s smart power grid. Because not all data is created equal and the repercussions are not the same, logic needs to be a part of any discussion on security.
The technology necessary to secure our personal data is already well established, including encrypting data, access control, and identity management. While not foolproof, advances are continually being made in security to thwart advances in hacking technology, but it’s a constant battle to stay ahead of cyber criminals.
Numerous businesses are devoted to the protection of data in the age of IoT, including Cisco and Intel, but it may require teaming up with government. For instance, sensible government regulations combined with best practices in a collaborative effort with technology companies to protect the best interests of all parties. Without a certain level of comfort by consumers that their personal information is safe, the IoT will wither on the vine rather than flourish. But is a flourishing IoT good for the economy?
Job and Skill Losses as IoT Develops Intelligent Devices and Robots
A 2013 study out of University of Oxford estimates that more than 700 occupations could be computerized out of existence, putting up to 47% of American jobs at risk. In early 2013, The Economist ran an article claiming that dozens of jobs would be taken over by robots in the next two decades, including telemarketers, retail workers, and accountants. Even Bill Gates is sounding the robot alarm.
But should these dire warnings come true, it’s not necessarily the end of the world as we know it. Since the first industrial revolution in the early 20th century, we’ve been warned about our jobs being taken over by machines. Humans always find a way to learn new skills and adapt. The kind of change we’re now being warned about is evolutionary, taking decades to blossom, allowing colleges to gear courses to meet the challenges of an increasingly automated economy.
While it seems inevitable that the technology landscape is about to change drastically over the next 20 years, whether or not we’re prepared to cope with these changes might rest on education and corporate policy. IoT has the ability to significantly alter our lives, but we must be flexible enough to embrace this change. For example, a remote workforce that is implemented in a new way rather than just tweaking the way things are now.
Connecting a disbursed workforce through technology can dramatically increase productivity while decreasing carbon emissions. But many companies are still leery of the worker they can’t see every day. In 2013, Yahoo famously rescinded their remote worker policy. It’s still unclear if this has resulted in the benefits they were seeking, but what they did get was a PR headache they weren’t ready for. A company that embraces IoT for other companies but not themselves resulted in a backlash that is still being talked about two years later. Google had a similar issue when promoting Google Hangouts as a way to collaborate with disparate teams, while forcing one of their most productive and talented programmers to either relocate from Canada to California or resign. He chose to resign.
As with anything, there are right and wrong ways to go about technology advancement. Gerd Leonhard, CEO of The Futures Agency, said regarding the threat of robots taking away jobs, “If we do this wrong, the technology providers could end up destroying hundreds of millions of jobs with products and services in the cloud, which makes these businesses indispensable and very rich.”
But no robot or automated solution can take the place of warm, funny, talented people. A machine will never be able to make you feel the way your favorite barista does when she not only remembers your name, but also your drink order. Humans will always be the heart and soul of any successful business.
With every significant technology advancement, some jobs will become obsolete, but new fields and expertise always emerge. When mechanical harvesters took the jobs of many field workers, the demand for skilled technicians to repair equipment rose – jobs that didn’t exist a century ago.
What is almost a given is that the demand for unskilled labor will continue to decline, meaning education will be more important than at any time in our history. And that may mean a shift in the way we learn. With an increase in online learning over the past decade, the remote learner may be the wave of the future along with the remote worker.
There are numerous opportunities and challenges posed by IoT, too many to completely grasp at the moment, and these will only increase as more devices log on. What we can do now is educate ourselves about the potential impacts, benefits, and pitfalls to better prepare us for this fascinating new world.