The “Internet of Things” is one of the hottest buzz words in the global technology sector today. The phrase refers to a phenomenon, the mass proliferation of Internet-connected devices, that is as world-altering as the invention of the personal computer and the rise of the World Wide Web. Economy and society will change fundamentally when untold billions of devices — from cell phones to automobiles, water pipes to street lights, refrigerators to electric meters, wearable apparel to video surveillance cameras — all come to be embedded with computer chips, wireless technology and autonomous intelligence.
These devices will throw off massive volumes of data measured in exabytes (1,000 gigabytes is a terrabyte, 1,000 terrabytes is a petabyte, and 1,000 petabytes is an exabyte). A new generation of algorithms will mine this “big data” for patterns that, in an ideal world, will yield energy savings, productivity gains and greater convenience to power the next wave of economic growth. Given the perversity of human nature, however, the technology will have a dark side as well, leading to abuses by hackers, rip-off artists, organized crime networks, governments and other predators.
Cisco Systems, the networking giant, guesstimates that there are 8.7 billion connected devices in the world today. As prices for connectivity drop, the number of connected things will increase 25% on an annualized basis, meaning that we can expect 50 billion connected things by 2020. Some tech observers suggest that Cisco may be conservative. But if the number is anywhere close to the truth, the trend line is shifting from a linear increase in connectedness to an exponential increase. The Internet of Things will be upon us before we know it.
Virtually every major technology company has identified the IoT as the Next Big Thing — the next mega-market that will drive profits for years to come. You’ve no doubt heard of Google’s work on wearable computers and self-driving automobiles. But that’s just the tip of the data stick. Consider some recent corporate developments:
- Chip-making giant Intel, having largely missed the mobile revolution, last month unveiled two low-energy chips, the Quark and the Atom, designed for Internet of Things applications as varied as wearable devices, intelligent vending machines and interactive kiosks. Last week, it launched an “IoT Solutions Group.”
- Industrial titan GE invested $30 million in Quirky, a product-design company that specializes in creating consumer devices for the Internet of Things, with the goal of creating 30 marketable devices within five years.
- Samsung, the Korean electronics conglomerate that recruited Luc Julia, director of Apple’s Siri project, has unveiled its a voice-activated platform for wearable devices. An immediate goal: to integrate movement trackers, wearable heart monitors, Internet-connected scales and other devices relating to personal fitness.
- Verizon, which operates the nation’s largest telecommunications network, introduced a new security solution to safeguard the growing number of Internet-connected automobiles, smart meters and home-monitoring systems from emerging technology risks.
And that was just last week.
While the concept is old hat to the tech community, awareness of the Internet of Things is just now permeating to the cultural cognoscenti. In a recent column, “When Complexity is Free,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman described how every major part of a G.E. jet engine, locomotive or turbine comes equipped with online sensors that measure and broadcast every aspect of performance. Inspired in part by a case in which a hacker hijacked the baby monitor of a Texas family and screamed obscenities at a sleeping infant, the Federal Trade Commission has scheduled a workshop to learn more about the Internet of Things.
Like it or not, the IoT is coming. We non-techies and sub-cognoscenti who opine about public policy had better start dealing with it. On the positive side, the potential exists to transform the way we approach transportation and infrastructure. The so-called Smart Cities movement (see Monday’s post), a major current of the IoT river, offers the prospect of less expensive, more responsive government, not to mention more intelligent government decision making. Virginians potentially can save billions of dollars in infrastructure costs.
We also must prepare for the dark side. In a world awash in video cameras, license-plate readers, GPS car-tracking devices and movement-monitoring sensors in office buildings and shopping malls, how do we protect our privacy? In a world in which coins and currency are digitized into electronic bits that transfer with a swipe of the smart phone, how do we protect ourselves from ever-inventive cyber-criminals?
The Internet of Things is coming. It will transform everything around us. Will Virginia’s institutions adapt or will they crumble under the assault? Will we ride this technological tsunami to greater economic competitiveness and a higher quality of life, or will be watch slack-jawed as it washes over us? The decision is ours.