The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing agree that the expanding networking of everything and everyone—the growth of the Internet of Things and embedded and wearable devices—will have widespread and beneficial effects by 2025. They say the opportunities and challenges resulting from amplified connectivity will influence nearly everything, nearly everyone, nearly everywhere.
We call this a canvassing because it is not a representative, randomized survey. Its findings emerge from an “opt in” invitation to experts who have been identified by researching those who are widely quoted as technology builders and analysts and those who have made insightful predictions to our previous queries about the future of the internet. (For more details, please see the section “About this Canvassing of Experts.”)
Some 1,606 experts responded to the following question:
The evolution of embedded devices and the Internet/Cloud of Things—As billions of devices, artifacts, and accessories are networked, will the Internet of Things have widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public by 2025?
Eighty-three percent of these experts answered “yes” and 17% answered “no.” They were asked to elaborate on their answer and a handful of grand themes ran through their answers:
Theme 1) The Internet of Things and wearable computing will progress significantly between now and 2025.
These experts believe infrastructure and adoption of the Internet of Things will substantially progress in the next decade. Many believe there will be clear advantages as that happens. Some believe it will happen, but disagree that the benefits will be great or outweigh the problems. A modest minority flatly disagree and many see a mixed picture, where the technology advances that add to life also create problems. Even most of those who worry about the trend towards the Internet of Things do not challenge the notion that more objects, appliances, cars, and other parts of the environment will be connected.
JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, was particularly pointed in describing the benefits that will emerge in this new environment: “The proliferation of sensors and actuators will continue. ‘Everything’ will become nodes on a network. The quality of real-time information that becomes available will take the guesswork out of much of capacity planning and decision-making. We will really understand what it means to move from ‘stocks’ to ‘flows,’ as in the Hagel-Seely Brown-Davison model. 1 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. ‘Inventory’ will be reduced, as will the waste associated with the decay that is an intrinsic part of inventory. 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 healthcare. Our notions of privacy and sharing will continue to evolve as a result, with new tradeoffs needing to be understood and dealt with. People will engage with information using all of their senses: touch and feel, sight, sound, smell, and taste—using them in combination, more often than not. Wearable, connected devices will become embedded more and more in our bodies, more like implants, as in the [Google] Glass becoming more like contact lenses. As that happens, our ability to use nerve impulses to engage with information will expand dramatically. We will see today’s connected devices become smaller and smaller and slowly merge into the part of the body from where the particular sense related to that device operates.”
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. 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.Paul Saffo, managing director of Discern Analytics
An iconic example that many cite is that milk cartons—themselves carrying sensors or perhaps sitting on “smart” refrigerator shelves in people’s homes—will send signals to the homeowner or grocery stores when they are nearing empty and this information will be conveyed to the homeowner when she is conveniently near a store. Some respondents liked that; others thought that kind of progress would be less than cosmic.
Other examples of Internet of Things activities that some of our respondents mentioned:
- Subcutaneous sensors or chips that provide patients’ real-time vital signs to self-trackers and medical providers.
- Remote control apps that allow users’ phones to monitor and adjust household activities—from pre-heating the oven to running a bath to alerting users via apps or texts when too much moisture or heat is building up in various parts of the home (potentially alerting users to a leak or a fire).
- Smart cities where ubiquitous sensors and GPS readouts allow for vastly smoother flows of traffic; warnings and suggestions to commuters about the best way to get around traffic– perhaps abetted by smart alarm clocks synched to their owners’ eating and commuting habits and their day-to-day calendars.
- Sensored roadways, buildings, bridges, dams and other parts of infrastructure that give regular readings on their state of wear and tear and provide alerts when repairs or upgrades are needed.
- Vastly improved productivity in manufacturing at every stage, as supply chain logistics are coordinated.
- Paper towel dispensers in restrooms that signal when they need to be refilled. Municipal trash cans that signal when they need to be emptied. Alarm clocks that start the coffee maker,
- Smart appliances working with smart electric grids that run themselves or perform their chores after peak loads subside.
Many expect that a major driver of the Internet of Things will be incentives to try to get people to change their behavior—maybe to purchase a good, maybe to act in a more healthy or safe manner, maybe work differently, maybe to use public goods and services in more efficient ways. 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.”
Minority view: Not so fast
Many respondents added to their portrait of the emerging benefits of the Internet of Things with warnings about the problems that would accompany the tech advances. Some were generally less optimistic about how far the Internet of Things would advance and whether the benefits would be as extensive as their peers envision. A typical version of this line was offered by Bill St. Arnaud, a self-employed green Internet consultant, who wrote, “The Internet of Things has been in the red zone of the hypometer for over a decade now. Yes, there will be many niche applications, but it will not be the next big thing, as many pundits predict. If the Internet of Things had any true validity, you would think you would start to see evidence of its presence on early adopter Internet networks.”
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 in response to this question, “No, yuck, we don’t need this, and most people aren’t asking for it. 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.”
The co-founder of a consultancy with practices in Internet technology and biomedical engineering wrote, “Inter-networked wearables will remain a toy for the wealthy. They will possibly serve special purposes in environments like prisons, hospitals, and the battlefield. Inter-networked devices are a lovely convenience and the cost of building Bluetooth, NFC, RFID, WiFi, etc. into new devices is reasonable—but the effect on everyday lives is negligible. If my bathroom scale tells my smartphone how much I weigh, that is handy but hardly life-changing. There are tremendous upsides of networked devices for special-purpose roles, but, in my humble opinion, not for benefiting everyday life in a revolutionary way. Compare the Samsung watch and Google Glass to calculator watches of the 1970s—useful proof of concept, but more of a fad than a trend, of interest to a few, and ridiculed by many others. Gaze tracking is a mature technology and we do not have any killer app for it now—I wouldn’t expect it to dominate the hearts and minds of the public after another 11 years.”
Theme 2) The realities of this data-drenched world raise substantial concerns about privacy and people’s abilities to control their own lives. 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.
There will be absolutely no privacy, not even in the jungle, away from civilization. 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.Nick Wreden of the University of Technology Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur
Peter R Jacoby, a college professor, wrote, “The effects will be widespread but pernicious. We might as well inject ourselves into the Internet of Things. By 2025, we will have long ago given up our privacy. The Internet of Things will demand—and we will give willingly—our souls. Whether intended or not, the Internet of Things may be the ultimate affirmation of Juvenal’s observation in Satire 2 all that was really needed to keep the entire Roman Empire under control by the Emperor was as simple as ‘panem et circenses (bread and circuses),’ which Juvenal mused was the formula for the well-being of the population, and thus, a political strategy. This formula offered a variety of pleasures, such as: the distribution of food, public baths, gladiators, exotic animals, chariot races, sports competition, and theater representation. It was an efficient instrument in the hands of the Emperor to keep the population peaceful, and at the same time, give them the opportunity to voice themselves in these places of performance. It worked quite well for a few hundred years. Now, we have tacos and TV. Wearables and scannables by 2025? Same thing.”
Frank Pasquale, a law professor at a large U.S. university, responded, “As Rivera’s film Sleep Dealer shows, the workplace plugged into the Internet of Things will be more productive and more prison-like (or, to be more accurate, more like an ‘ankle monitor’ of the mind that upgrades scanning not merely to location, but also to observable ‘outputs’ like typing and eye movements). Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 is also an essential guide to this future. It sets the stage for extraordinarily targeted monitoring and manipulation of these individuals. There will be a small class of ‘watchers’ and a much larger class of the experimented upon, the watched. Rules that govern institutional research boards should be applied here, too.”
Some analysts warn that the perpetual feedback and stimulation loop accompanying always-available computing can lead to other social ills.
Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said, “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. 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.”
A related strain of argument ties to fears that algorithms cannot necessarily be trusted to make the appropriate decisions. For instance, Aaron Balick, a PhD, psychotherapist, and author of The Psychodynamics of Social Networking, predicted, “Positive things may be tempered by a growing reliance on outsourcing to technologies that make decisions not based on human concerns, but instead on algorithms (however influenced by our own past choices). We may begin to lose sight of our own desires or our own wills, like many of these drivers who we hear about who, because their GPS told them to, end up in the most unlikely places in the face of all sorts of real-world, contrary evidence. What will happen to our own senses of intuition, let alone our capacity to venture into the unknown, learn new things, and our ability to be still and quiet without being in constant relationship to one device or another.”
Quite a few survey respondents mentioned that it will be necessary to find ways for people to be able to disengage from the network, to stop being a node that constantly sends and receives data.
Theme 3) Information interfaces will advance—especially voice and touch commands. But few expect that brain-to-network connectivity will be typical in most people’s daily lives by 2025
Per Ola Kristensson, lecturer in human-computer interaction at the University of St. Andrews, UK, sees advances in small-screen communications but shared doubts about the brain-computer interface. “In 2025,” he predicted, “we will be able to write on mobiles as fast as we can on a full-screen keyboard, wherever we are. Wearable sensors and mobile eye tracking will be used by systems to learn about users’ context: where are they, what are they doing, and what are they likely communicating? Better sensors, more advanced machine learning algorithms, and a better understanding of humans’ capabilities and limitations will result in gesture and speech recognition having evolved so much that users will fluidly be able to express themselves quickly, even if they are mobile or encumbered. Systems will be able to take users’ context into account and enable users to combine several modalities such as speech, gesture, and eye movement, and systems will fluidly combine these modalities, providing users maximum flexibility, robust recognition results, and fast-text input. Brain-Computer Interaction (BCI) will, however, not be feasible for able-bodied users, most likely because efficient BCI will remain requiring invasive equipment to be installed and the signal-to-noise ratio remaining low.”
Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina and founder of ibiblio.org, predicted that body movements may evolve into commands. “The population curve … will cause much of the monitoring and assistance by intelligent devices to be welcomed and extended,” he said. “This is what we had in mind all along—augmented life extension. Young people, you can thank us later. We look like kung fu fighters with no visible opponents now, but soon, the personalized interface issues will settle on a combination of gestures and voice. Thought-driven? Not by 2025, but not yet out of the question for a further future. Glass and watch interfaces are a start at this combination of strokes, acceleration, voice, and even shaking and touching device-to-device. The key will be separating random human actions from intentional ones, then translating those into machine commands—search, call, direct, etc.”
Theme 4) There will be complicated, unintended consequences: ‘We will live in a world where many things won’t work and nobody will know how to fix them.’
Some participants anticipate that the kind of complexity caused by such a large network will be too difficult to maintain and evolve well.
Howard Rheingold, a pioneering Internet sociologist and self-employed writer, consultant, and educator, responded, “The 1992 novel Snowcrash described a world of ubiquitous wearables, where it became possible to auction, eBay style, captured images of any specified time and place. In regard to increasingly semi-sentient objects in the environment, I warned in my 2002 book Smart Mobs that a new kind of animism (first voiced by Mark Pesce) might arise: what child will be able to know that a doorknob that recognizes their face doesn’t also know many other things? We will live in a world where many things won’t work, and nobody will know how to fix them.”
Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, wrote, “The Internet of Things (IoT) is too complex. It will break, over and over. Given my reply to the cyberwarfare question, most of the devices exposed on the Internet will be vulnerable. They will also be prone to unintended consequences: they will do things nobody designed for beforehand, most of which will be undesirable. 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. Try using speech recognition in a crowded room. Now, imagine that it is your thoughts being tracked, not merely speech. Google Glass has already attracted backlash, before a thousand people are in the world using it. Our surveillance society feels oppressive, not liberating. No comfortable truce will be found between the privacy advocates and the ‘screen everything’ crowd.”
Theme 5) The unconnected and those who just don’t want to be connected may be disenfranchised. Consider the ramifications of digital divides.
Miguel Alcaine, International Telecommunication Union area representative for Central America, responded, “The Internet of Things will add to the comfort of people living in developed countries by 2025. It will also have a measurable impact in utilities markets like energy and water. Unfortunately, it might not help people in developing countries with developmental issues, mainly because of the tendency in many developing countries to focus on the short term and not on the long term. People with disabilities could be the most favored by such devices. Also, micro-devices using biometrics for identification may be accepted by populations worried with deteriorating security conditions.”
K.G. Schneider, a university librarian, wrote, “Right now, Google Glass follows the pattern of other technology adoptions, where what I see are a handful of first-world white men touting their shiny new toys. Put this in context with someone struggling to get by on a daily basis—in the US or in other countries: what these devices primarily signify is a growing gulf between the tech haves and have-nots. That said, I’m not boycotting these devices—I see them as interesting and important. But just as students today are burdened if they don’t have home Internet—and at the university where I work, that is true of some of our commuter students, much as people might find that hard to believe—there will be an expectation that successful living as a human will require being equipped with pricey accoutrements… Reflecting on this makes me concerned that as the digital divide widens, people left behind will be increasingly invisible and increasingly seen as less than full humans.”
Theme 6) Individuals’ and organizations’ responses to the Internet of Things will recast the relationships people have with each other and with groups of all kinds.
Technology could empower people with tools that protect their privacy
Doc Searls, journalist and director of ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society wrote:
First, the nature of the Internet, with its end-to-end architecture, welcomes everything—literally—in the world, in addition to the people, machines, and organizations connected today, by 2025, countless trillions of things will be online.
Second, it isn’t necessary for everything to have onboard intelligence, or to be connected full-time to the Net. Intelligence and connectivity can be abstracted away from things themselves to their own Clouds. This means everything is already in a position to have a Cloud of its own. This is all early stuff, but it already proves several things:
- That the intelligence of a thing can be abstracted to its own Cloud
- That its Cloud can have its own operating system
- That it’s possible to program relationships between things, and what events (such as scanning) can trigger
- That the Cloud of a thing can live within the Cloud of a person, and both run the same operating system
People’s Clouds of Things can be as personal and private as their houses (and, when encrypted, even more so). They can also be far more social than any ‘social network’ because they won’t involve centralized control of the kind that Facebook, Google, and Twitter provide. Instead, they can connect to each other in a fully distributed way. Logical operations can be programmed among and between anybody and anything in the world, with full respect for the permissions others provide voluntarily.
For example, one could program (or have programmed for them) this kind of logic:
- If my phone scans the QR code I’ve put on my cable modem, a message will go to the cable company saying that’s just happened. The cable company could note the message and its source, check against a trouble ticket database, and text back a message such as, “We see there is an outage in your area. Service should be back up within two hours.” Or,
- If a cable company technician scans the same QR code, it will get access, with my permission, to whatever data I have chosen to flow into the Cloud of the cable modem. In fact, the Cloud for the modem could have data in it from both the cable company and myself.
Several additional points are worth noting here:
- All kinds of logic can be written and executed in this scenario: if, then, and, or, else, nor, and so on.
- There will be a hefty business in providing, provisioning, and programming Clouds for things and people, and making it all easy.
- Products themselves become platforms for relationships between customers and companies. This opens huge service opportunities. (See more in this piece I wrote for HBR.)
Today, all customer-service frameworks are provided by companies, and not by customers. All are also different from each other and require that each of us maintain separate relationships with all of them. (Even when many companies use the same back-end Cloud, as they do with Salesforce, what faces the customer is different for each company.) In the new system we see emerging above, customers will own—and standardize—the relationships they have with companies. (One small example of this is the ability to change one’s contact information one time for all company relationships, rather than separately for all of them.)
We will wear smart clothes and smart things. The world will also be thick with smart things as well, including products for sale that communicate what they are, what they cost, and much more. Moderating between ourselves and the rest of the world will be systems of manners. So, for example, we might wear devices that signal an unwillingness to be followed, or to have promotional messages pushed at us without our consent. Likewise, a store might recognize us as an existing customer with an established and understood relationship. Google Glass today is a very early prototype and has little, if any, social manners built-in, which is why it freaks people out. New manners-friendly systems, and the protocols to go with them, will be worked out over the next five or so years. (Some paths in this direction are outlined in my blog post, Searls Glasses—http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/doc/2014/01/29/searls-glasses-vs-google-glass/.)
Personal space will expand and contract
Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, presented a vivid picture of how adoption is likely to evolve.
“First,” he said, “we should never underestimate the power of convenience. 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. Expect people in driverless cars to talk to their personal shoppers (Artificial Intelligence, probably) through their glasses or armbands, while businesses jockey for their attention, based on minute data advantages. 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). 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 deep desires to be entertained and connected will lead us to accept these devices. Younger folks will lead the way. 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.2 Expect more neoLuddites to hanker for computing as humanity was intended to have it, on keyboards!”