The Internet of things will grow rapidly over the next 10-plus years, holding out more than its share of promises and hope for a future that is more efficient, social, healthy and happy, as well as fear and concern around such issues as security, privacy and the decline of human interaction, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.
The center’s Internet Project and Elon University, in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Internet, is releasing a series of eight reports that collect insights and opinions on the future of technology from a range of experts. A previous report touched on the fast adoption of the Internet and its role in the global social fabric. The latest study, which focuses on the Internet of things (IoT) and what it will look like by 2025, included responses from 1,600 people.
Most said they expect the IoT will dramatically change technology and how people relate to it, and that the change will be for the better. Technology will become more important to people’s lives as it becomes less visible, something akin to electricity, according to the report’s authors. Many respondents said the positive impacts will be significant.
“The net effect will be to reduce waste everywhere: in physical flows and logistics, in the movement of people and goods; in logical flows and logistics, in the movement of ideas and information; decisions will be made faster and better, based on more accurate information; prior errors in assumption and planning will be winkled out more effectively,” said JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com.
“‘Inventory’ will be reduced, as will the waste associated with the decay that is an intrinsic part of inventory,” he continued. “This will affect the food you buy and cook and eat; the fuel you use to power yourself, your devices and your vehicles; the time you take to do things; and, as you learn to live longer, the burden of care will reduce as a result of far better monitoring of, and response to, your physical and emotional state, in terms of health care.”
The IoT refers to the growing number of connected intelligent systems, devices and sensors—from automobiles and manufacturing systems to wearable devices, appliances, surveillance cameras, medical systems and televisions—that will generate and share massive amounts of data. Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers has called the IoT the most significant transition in the tech industry since the Internet.
Patrick Tucker—author of “The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move?”—told the Pew researchers that in 2008 “the number of Internet-connected devices first outnumbered the human population, and they have been growing far faster than have we. There were 13 billion Internet-connected devices in 2013, according to Cisco, and there will be 50 billion in 2020. These will include phones, chips, sensors, implants and devices of which we have not yet conceived.”
What Cisco officials call the Internet of everything will generate $19 trillion in new revenues for businesses worldwide by 2020, and IDC analysts expect the IoT technology and services market to hit $8.9 trillion that year.
The survey respondents laid out various IoT scenarios, such as subcutaneous sensors or chips that collect real-time vital signs on patients and send them to self-trackers and medical providers, and smartphones that use remote control apps to monitor and adjust household activities, including preheating the oven and alerting users about too much moisture or heat in the house. They also talked about roads and buildings armed with sensors that can let people know about how worn down they are and municipal trash cans that signal when they need to be emptied.
“Most of our devices will be communicating on our behalf—they will be interacting with the physical and virtual worlds more than interacting with us,” wrote Paul Saffo, managing director of Discern Analytics. “The devices are going to disappear into what we wear and/or carry. For example, the glasses interface will shrink to near-invisibility in conventional glasses.
“The devices will also become robustly inter-networked (remember the first conversations about body networks of a decade ago?). The biggest shift is a strong move away from a single do-everything device to multiple devices with overlapping functions and, above all, an inter-relationship with our other devices,” Saffo continued.
Internet of Things Is Coming, but Is That Good or Bad?
Whether this kind of world is good or bad is up for debate.
“First, we should never underestimate the power of convenience,” wrote Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. “Wearable computing can make things easier for users, and that’s enough to drive adoption. Second, companies, old and new, have much to gain from the Internet of things, starting with customer data, and moving on to shaping services based on that data. … Third, we will socialize in new ways, changing more.
“Our sense of personal space will both expand (to cover the world) and contract (to not be rude to other multitaskers),” he continued. “Our sense of belonging will continue to redistribute globally and by affiliation. Public and private spaces will acquire a new layer of interaction and mediation, with Twittering car tires, writing on fridges and projection on cabinets. … Our will to create will make us want these devices ready and on-hand. Naturally, there will be a backlash. We’ve already seen it with the ‘Glassholes’ meme. Expect more neoLuddites to hanker for computing as humanity was intended to have it, on keyboards!”
Others worry about the loss of privacy and the threat to security, and question whether the IoT will be too complex and prone to failure.
“There will be absolutely no privacy, not even in the jungle, away from civilization,” wrote Nick Wreden of the University of Technology Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur. “I don’t like this, but people have shown over and over again that they are willing to trade away their souls for a ‘$1 off’ coupon. Conversation, which includes not only words, but also movement, eye contact, hearing, memory and more, is such a holistic, pleasurable experience that people will not give it up easily.”
Karl Fogel, a partner at Open Tech Strategies and president of QuestionCopyright.com, disputed how anticipated the Internet of things is.
“No, yuck, we don’t need this, and most people aren’t asking for it,” Fogel wrote. “I’ve never been quite clear on where the demand is supposedly coming from. The scarce resource will continue to be human attention. There is a limit to the usefulness of devices that are worn in public but that demand attention because it is often socially and practically unacceptable to give those devices enough attention to make them worth the trouble of configuring and interacting with.”
Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said there will be good and bad with the IoT.
“It will have widespread beneficial effects, along with widespread negative effects,” Reich wrote. “There will be conveniences and privacy violations. There will be new ways for people to connect, as well as new pathways toward isolation, misanthropy and depression. I’m not sure that moving computers from people’s pockets (smartphones) to people’s hands or face will have the same level of impact that the smartphone has had, but things will trend in the similar direction. Everything that you love and hate about smartphones will be more so.”