Pew: what the future of Internet of Things looks like

Steven Loeb · May 14, 2014 · Short URL:

Some see it as a way to make us healthier, others see it as a potentially harmful

At Vator's recent Splash Oakland conference, I moderated a panel where we discussed a big emerging space: the Internet of Things. Some of the topics we discussed included privacy and regulation, as well as how fast, and simply how, the space would penetrate.

Now, a new Pew report, out on Wednesday, is shedding some additional light on the subject. Asking the opinion of more than 1,600 people, among them some of the world’s top technology experts, the report shows how some the top minds see the space and where it is going.

First, for those who don't know, the Internet of Things is a network of devices that are connected via sensors to maximize the potential of each object. That can include anything from airplanes, to cars, to thermostats, refrigerators, even soda cans and forks.

Pew covered multiple separate topics, in the report, including the progress that the space will make over the next 10 years. While most surveyed agreed that Internet of Things adoption will grow significantly, not all of them thought that was a was good thing.

For example, JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce, sees the adoption of IoT devices as a good thing.

"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," he said.

Karl Fogel, partner at Open Tech Strategies, on the other hand, was much less enthusiastic about the prospect of smart devices.

"I’ve never been quite clear on where the demand is supposedly coming from. The scarce resource will continue to be human attention," he said. "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.”

The next topic that Pew asked about was about privay, a topic that many in this space that I personally spoke spoken to have also had a lot to say about. If, one day, every coffeemaker on the shelf is a smart coffeemaker that transmits data back to the company that produced it, where is the choice to opt out?

Nobody seems to be all that comfortable with the notion of a privacy-free world, but some seems to have simply accepted it at this point.

“It will have widespread beneficial effects, along with widespread negative effects. There will be conveniences and privacy violations. There will be new ways for people to connect, as well as new pathways towards isolation, misanthropy, and depression," Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said in the report.

"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.”

As Pew pointed out, though, many of those that they asked said there is going to have to be a way for people to get off the network sometimes. And some repondants worried that those who do not want to be connected could potentially become disenfranchised.

Even worse, there will be unintended consequences of the adoption of Internet of Things devices, including perhaps living in a world where no one will know how to fix things (though, to me, this seems pretty unlikely, as the jobs of the future will most likely be in both designing and fixing these devices). 

One responder that line of questioning started to sound like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park:

"We aren’t evolved enough as a species or society to create apps and services that are useful to humanity in the Internet of Things. We’ll try to create efficiencies but be thwarted by Nature’s complexity. False positives from contextual movements will break people’s willingness to have devices track their expressions and thoughts,” Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, said in the report. 

And so what do the experts think the future of the Internet of Things looks like?

Many of them see Google Glass as the forbearer, either in good or bad ways. Some thing that it, or another device like it will allow people to be constantly getting information about everything around them, while others see it as an unholy blurring of man and machine. Others see the devices as a way to make us healthier, while some see them as a way to control our minds. 

But maybe my favorite is this answer by Hal Varian, chief economist for Google:

“We will eventually be able to interact via thoughts, but it won’t be common by 2025. However, verbal interaction will be commonplace. We will talk to devices in essentially the same way we talk to other people," he said. "Yes, you will be permanently connected to the network via wearable devices. You will interact with these devices mostly by voice, as you would interact with another person. Centuries ago, rich people had servants, and in the future, we will all have cyberservants.”

I honestly cannot wait until I live in a world where I have my own personal "cyberservant." Even if it does try to control my mind. 

The questions in the report were asked between November 25, 2013, and January 13, 2014 by the Pew Research Center Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center in an online canvassing.

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