They already outnumber us and they’re talking to each other

WASHINGTON, D.C.
May 14, 2014 7:00am
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•  Internet of Things expected to soon have 50 Billion things connected

•  “The scarce resource will continue to be human attention”


The machines are talking. So many that if they could be heard, the earth would be enveloped by the incessant chattering of 13 billion sensors, chips and other electronic devices. And the machines’ yammering is exploding: as many as 50 billion devices linked to the Internet by 2020, according to the Internet equipment maker Cisco.

This is the “Internet of Things” and experts are divided on its benefits and liabilities for humans. The expert predictions are chronicled in a report about the future of the Internet by the Pew Research Center Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center.

More than 1,600 people, among them some of the world’s top technology experts, discussed how today’s trends indicate the evolution of the Internet of Things by the year 2025.

“They say there will be a continuing proliferation of tech screens, wearable devices, connected appliances and artifacts, ‘smart’ grids, and environments full of sensors and cameras,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet project, “They expect this will produce significant change.”

If success in business can sometimes mean recognizing trends and putting the business in the path of those changes, then here are some of the experts’ predictions.

• Bodies

Many people will wear devices that let them connect to the Internet and will give them feedback on their activities, health and fitness. They will also monitor others (their children or employees, for instance) who are also wearing sensors, or moving in and out of places that have sensors.

• Homes

People will be able to control nearly everything remotely, from how their residences are heated and cooled to how often their gardens are watered. Homes will also have sensors that warn about everything from prowlers to broken water pipes.

• Communities

Embedded devices and smartphone apps will enable more efficient transportation and give readouts on pollution levels. “Smart systems” might deliver electricity and water more efficiently and warn about infrastructure problems.

• Goods and services

Factories and supply chains will have sensors and readers that more precisely track materials to speed up and smooth out the manufacture and distribution of goods.

• Environment

There will be real-time readings from fields, forests, oceans, and cities about pollution levels, soil moisture, and resource extraction that allow for closer monitoring of problems.

But the realities of this data-drenched world raise substantial concerns about privacy and people’s abilities to control their own lives. Says the report, if everyday activities are monitored and people are generating informational outputs, the level of profiling and targeting will grow and amplify social, economic, and political struggles.

“These experts say the next digital revolution is the expanding and often-invisible spread of the Internet of Things,” noted Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center and a co-author of the report. “They expect positive change that will impact health, transportation, shopping, industrial production and the environment. But they also warn about the privacy implications of this new data-saturated world and about the complexities involved in making networked devices work together.”

Laurel Papworth, social media educator, explained, “Every part of our life will be quantifiable, and eternal, and we will answer to the community for our decisions. For example, skipping the gym will have your gym shoes auto tweet (equivalent) to the peer-to-peer health insurance network that will decide to degrade your premiums. There is already a machine that can read brain activity, including desire, in front of advertising by near/proximity. I have no doubt that will be placed into the Big Data databases when evaluating hand gestures, body language, and pace for presenting social objects for discussion/purchase/voting.”

One critical unknown is the degree to which people will outsource their attention to devices and appliances in the Internet of Things, or focus on devices that display all these data, at the expense of activities taking place in their vicinity.

Karl Fogel, partner at Open Tech Strategies, president at QuestionCopyright.org, wrote: “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.”

About the study

The report about these predictions comes in the sixth canvassing of experts done by the Pew Research Center in association with the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. It is the second report generated out of the results of Web-based questions fielded from late November 2013 to early January 2014. It gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public.


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