We have been observing the evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT) for several years now. In fact, if you’ve ever worn a FitBit, used a voice recognition feature or connected your mobile phone to personal Wi-Fi, then you probably are unable to fathom everyday life without it.
If you are not familiar with the acronym IoT, it refers to the connectivity of modern chip enabled smart devices (things) that are being manufactured for everything from our homes to our work environments. In the near future, virtually all electronic devices will have 'connectivity.' So if it has a chip and access to the internet, it will have the capability to connect to all the other 'things' across the globe and share information. By some estimates, there will be 21 billion electronic devices connected to the internet by the end of the decade.
Data scientists and analysts have been predicting the future of the IoT in countless magazines, blogs and scholarly articles. Most of these authors seem to be of two opinions: some embrace the IoT for all the benefits it can offer society and some are alarmed by it, pointing to the potential dangers of these connected 'things' and their potential issues with cybersecurity.
The Benefits of a Connected Society
The big winners in an IoT world would appear to be consumers as organizations harvest the big data generated by these electronic devices to better serve their customers.
Think of it this way: based on your buying habits and data shared through connected appliances in your home, companies can offer you deals on new appliances when data indicates that your old one will soon need extensive service. Even further, your car could communicate with your home that you will arrive soon, indicating your house needs to make adjustments to the HVAC, open the garage and turn off the security system.
Dr. Kirk Borne, a highly regarded data scientist, believes that the economic impact and benefits of the IoT will be huge. Economically speaking, by some estimates, the aggregated value of the IoT will approach $2.9 trillion by the end of the decade. Businesses that monitor your needs and are the first to offer you their products at your convenience will be even bigger winners financially.
Concerns Over a Privacy-Free Society
While some welcome the IoT, others are concerned with the loss of personal privacy. While a significant portion of our society today likes to share every detail of their lives on social media, that is, of course, something that users choose to do.
With the IoT and Big Data on the other hand, there is no choice as information about our intimate lives is observed, recorded and shared with countless people and organizations. Some of that information may include very sensitive details of our daily activities that may prove detrimental to our future. For example, what if your car reported to your insurance company that you are an aggressive driver and habitual speedster? Would you really want the world to know what time each day your water usage peaks or that you buy unhealthy hamburgers with a high fat content? Could these recorded habits be brought to the attention of your healthcare provider or affect your health insurance? Is your chip-enabled 'smart' TV monitoring not only the channels you watch, but also recording your conversations?
Fiction has a habit of becoming fact. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that George Orwell wrote of the ubiquitous nature of surveillance in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four:
"Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment...”
Society’s IoT Future
The discussions concerning the merits and drawbacks of the IoT will certainly continue as it evolves, but we just aren't sure where it is taking us. Some authors foresee a more utopian society with the IoT doing its part in taking better care of our needs before we fully realize them. Others authors warn of an encroaching dystopian society where the intimate details of our lives are recorded and scrutinized, forcing individuals into a mold that is acceptable to the society of the future. What we do know is that we are rapidly headed down the technology highway at an ever increasing speed, and the IoT is simply doing its part to speed things along.
So are we prepared for it? Do we even want it? Perhaps the fictional character Dr. Ian Malcom spoke true in the film Jurrassic Park, when he said "We are so preoccupied with whether or not we can do something that we aren't stopping to think...if we should.”
Dr. Jane LeClair