The Internet of Things World Forum, hosted by Cisco, wrapped up last week in Barcelona.
Cisco used the occasion to announce that it is forming a new business unit called the Internet of Things Group, whose task will be nothing less than “transforming today’s business processes into dynamic, intelligent, data driven and innovative business operations.”
The Internet of Things has entered our lexicon in the last year or two, but you could argue that the phenomenon has been pushed farther and faster by many, smaller companies for considerably longer than that. There isn’t much point in awarding points, though, for being first to arrive at the intersection of Big Data, mobile technology and smart devices. The future will belong to whoever manages to harness those forces most effectively.
One only need look at predictions being made now to gauge the stakes for both people (consumers) and companies in what research firm Gartner is calling the “Digital Industrial Economy”. Looking at the economic impact of the Internet of Things, Gartner paints a picture of what the world will look like in 2020, in which 30 billion devices with unique IP addresses will be connected to the cloud (compared with 2.5 billion connected devices in 2009), and revenue associated with the Internet of Things will exceed $309 billion per year.
Yeah, your pants will be talking to you pretty soon. Better get cool with that.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is hosting a World Forum on the Internet of Things in Seoul, Korea next March, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is hosting an Internet of Things conference next October in Cambridge.
Right now when we think “connected device”, we mainly imagine a phone. That won’t be the case in 2020. Peter Sondergaard, senior vice-president at Gartner, says, “Computing power will be cheap and covert. We won’t know it is there; it will be in our jewelry and in our clothing. We will throw more computers into our laundry in a week than we’ve used in our lifetimes so far.”
This will be a world in which your fridge, TV set, car, household appliances, heating and hot water system, etc. communicate effortlessly with “the cloud”, transmitting and receiving data constantly as they self-learn by adjusting themselves not only to your personal habits, but also by aggregating information provided by other devices on the network.
This future is consistent with Arthur C. Clarke’s insight that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The end user neither knows nor cares why or how a device works. It’s enough that it works. Increasingly, our attitude towards what constitutes a “device” will change in the sense that we will no longer be able to pop the hood and inspect the inner workings of objects that we either wear or that inhabit our environment in a way that they gradually become invisible to us.
For a lot of people, this is the dream future in which we each get a jetpack. For others, it’s a Big Brother nightmare of 24/7 surveillance and the surrender of personal freedom in exchange for mere convenience. If the consequence of blindly accepting the Internet of Things is that it makes our lives trivial, the numbers are anything but.
In contrast to Gartner, Cisco predicts 50 billion connected devices by 2020, which shows that while there’s a lot of room for guesswork regarding the scale of this future economy, it will be huge no matter whose forecast you listen to. Mckinsey Global Technologies predicts that the economic impact of the Internet of Things will increase from $2.7 trillion to $6.2 trillion per year until 2025. By then, it’s likely that Sean Parker’s line in The Social Network (“A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”) will provoke the same laughter that greets Dr. Evil’s demand for “one million dollars” in the “Austin Powers” film.
Gartner further predicts that by 2017, 20% of computers will not merely process but learn; that call centre and IT workers will be replaced by Siri-like machines; 3D printing will revolutionize the supply chain; we will see the advent of Furniture as a Service (FaaS); the combined IT and telecom market will hit $4 trillion, or 5% of GDP.
This is the future that both freaks us out and thrills us. It’s the Jetsons future in which a martini is handed to you by a robot maid at the end of the day.
It’s not that crazy. It resembles the future that we’re enjoying right now. Ask your smartphone to direct you to a bar in your area. Using GPS and a ratings system, you see a half-dozen or so candidates in your immediate vicinity and choose one. At that bar, you might settle a disagreement about whether MSG is bad for you, also using your phone. The smartphone has made the transition from an object that seemed impossibly futuristic only a few years ago to something that we’re bored with and take for granted today.
Novelty has always worn off in exactly the same way. We walk into a dark room, flick a switch, and there is light. We no longer wonder where it comes from or how, or how much it costs. It’s just there. It works. We no longer wonder what the world was like before the arrival of the automobile. We grew up watching six TV channels, and now we’re bored with 500.
In the lead-up to the Internet of things, we’ll contend with editorials written by a growing army of agony aunts, whose job it is to warn us of the dangers of losing our selves and cheapening the legacy of our grandparents, who fought and died to safeguard the freedom that we dishonour each time a teenager posts a selfie taken while attending a funeral.
Novelist Nicholas Carr worries, “More and more, at work and at leisure, we’re living our lives inside glass cockpits.” As if we had never faced the problem of making an abstraction of the world around us with the advent of the automobile or television. His previous question in the pages of the Atlantic was “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
Evgeny Morozov asks us to fret over a future loss of personal agency. “The invisible barbed wire of big data limits our lives to a space that might look quiet and enticing enough but is not of our own choosing and that we cannot rebuild or expand. The worst part is that we do not see it as such. Because we believe that we are free to go anywhere, the barbed wire remains invisible.”
On the one hand, you have to credit Morozov for coining an arresting metaphor: “invisible barbed wire”. And on the other you have to deduct points for trying to pass off the idea that loss of human agency in the face of forces that the average person can neither comprehend nor even see is at all original. He isn’t the first person (Kierkegaard, Hegel, Marx?) to suggest that we risk losing our selves, or becoming “alienated” from our own lives, in the face of social pressures. And he’s not the first person to state these ideas as if he thought of them all by himself.
To take Morozov’s larger point seriously, developing critical faculties and encouraging skepticism in the very young has always been the most important thing our education system can possibly accomplish, and will only become more so. We need to have a society-wide conversation to arrive at serious solutions for serious problems.
Morozov’s solution to the problems of the future? He advises that “we must learn how to sabotage the system—perhaps by refusing to self-track at all. … Refusing to make money off your own data might be as political an act as refusing to drive a car or eat meat.” Can he be serious?
This argument is no more serious than, “The looms will take our jobs. So we must break the looms.” To characterize Morozov’s critique as Luddite would, in fact, be an insult to the Luddites. You might as well suggest that we all live in unconnected cabins. The solution cannot be that we become digital vegetarians or refuseniks. The solution has to be, as it has always been, to teach young people to think and to learn to think properly about these things ourselves.
The future that we are headed towards means becoming comfortable with technology that we now regard as weird, just as we became comfortable with the printing press, electricity, automobiles and smartphones. Begin extending that degree of comfort to every other device (wristwatches, body-monitoring clothing, self-driving cars, eyeglasses, etc.) and your personal dignity is either liberated or eroded, depending on your worldview.
In order to accomplish this future, the manufacturers of these devices and the government agencies that regulate them will push for a single-platform solution to connect the devices with their infrastructure, so that you will be able to control your lights, heat, kitchen, TV, and whatever connected device from a single interface or app. That’s what the Internet of Things means.
The reason Cisco is staging an Internet of Things World Forum is not merely to cheerlead the effort to make more stuff. On the agenda is the development of standards.
“The Internet of things is a complex landscape and we saw there wasn’t a concerted effort to simplify it,” said Guido Jouret, vice-president and general manager of Cisco’s Internet of Things unit. “There is a need to bring together technology companies, integrators and industry to accelerate adoption.” He adds, ”There are a lot of proprietary interconnects.” That can’t remain the case 20 years from now.
As mentioned earlier, it’s unimportant who arrives first at the intersection of Big Data, mobile tech and smart devices. What’s important is who builds the infrastructure at that intersection, and who controls the standards around implementation. That will be who benefits from the Internet of Things.
Bruce Schneier, a renowned computer scientist, warns of the balance of power in the age of “Internet feudalism”. But far from encouraging people to “sabotage the system” he instead frames the issue in terms that we can work together to manage, stating that data is “the pollution problem of the information age.” He suggests “that just as we look back at the early decades of the industrial age and wonder how society could ignore pollution in their rush to build an industrial world, our grandchildren will look back at us during these early decades of the information age and judge us on how we dealt with the rebalancing of power resulting from all this new data.”
This should strike anyone as perhaps a more constructive approach to how we live in the future than childishly encouraging sabotage.
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