Prepare yourself for an endless tide of articles, books and posts over the next year about the “Internet of Things.” That’s a suggestive but imprecise descriptor for a new stage of interconnectivity in our society. For two decades, the Internet has connected us with each other through email, text, VOIP, social media and a thousand other person-to-person links. A revolutionary cost reduction in storage and the evolutionary increase in computing power on tiny chips has given us access to unlimited visual and audio content.
Now, another revolutionary cost reduction in sensors and further evolutionary increase in computing power on tiny chips is plugging all kinds of machines into our daily lives, and linking those machines to each other. The Internet of Things is here, and if you don’t believe me, just ask your car.
Let’s All “Chip” In
Like our portable tablets and smartphones, today’s autos contain myriad sensors to read location, motion and system performance, and they report this data directly back to their manufacturers, among others. In addition, this data is saved so that it can be used when you are in an accident, or accessed by the police or someone suing you in court. Your car can record your good behavior and will narc on your bad behavior. Why do you think Flo from Progressive Insurance is pushing so hard for you to accept their “cool” sensor bundle that “may” save you money – or may record all your bad driving habits and cost you money, or may simply be used against you when applying for car insurance (or life insurance or disability insurance) in the future. In any case, it will provide your car insurance company a direct window into many formerly private aspects of your life.
The Internet of Things is already allowing devices to collect remote information from machines and even items of clothing to report on themselves and their owners. As more and more non-human entities are registered with IP addresses, we will see a transformation of the Internet and of society. And more device connections are coming. According to a research company, the projected market value of smart appliances connected to the Internet will be $5.4 billion by 2015, the smart lighting market will be $6.7 billion by 2018, the home automation market will be $35.6 billion by 2016, and in 2018 the projected market value of the connected car market will be $54 billion.
Gadgets That Gossip (About You)
A sure way to correctly predict the direction technology will take in the near future is to analyze where the richest tech companies are spending their money. Case in point: Google just bet $3.2 billion on the concept of connected control over the home with its purchase of Nest Labs, that currently makes Internet-connected thermostats and smoke detectors (so Google can offer you great hotel deals as soon as your house burns down), but intends to push deeper into systems that can be improved through Internet connectivity. Google also formed an Open Automotive Alliance last year, announced at the Consumer Electronics Show, with several car manufacturers to integrate the Android operating system into future cars. The Alliance is creating a connected driving experience that would allow information and entertainment apps from phones to be carried over to car computers. Google already has a partnership with Audi for satellite and Street View images. Android vehicles are planned for launch in 2014.
Unlike most major technology shifts in the past three decades, the Internet of Things seems to be driven by the desires of business, rather than by some “killer app” like voice mail or picture sharing that excites the general public. Progressive Insurance’s Flo enthuses that adopting their spying sensors can be a good thing, and consumers may accept the idea. Crucially, though, it’s not consumers who seem to be clamoring for the devices. If your new dishwasher contains thirty sensors and is connected to the Internet, its manufacturer can now better analyze how the machine operates in household conditions, and can better serve software revisions and bug fixes to the machine. A more reliable machine for you? Without question. However, the real added value accrues to the machine’s manufacturer and retailer who are building up a database about both their product and your use of it.
What will they think of next? The situation is becoming an arms race between those who develop and benefit from the new high-tech nosiness and those who scramble to design new ways to keep up with and manage it. Individuals and organizations all have their own interests, and in seeking benefits from the new infrastructure, they may act without regard for the interests of others. Individually and collectively, however, all of us will be on the receiving end of events and cannot escape the need to respond to the transformation of virtually every sector of society already underway.
Consider, if you will, that very infrastructure starting to operate against its users’ own best interests. What new areas of law and forms of crime might we expect to encounter? Read Part 2 of this post for more on that question.