Imagine the following scenario: Your neighbors have a loud party and you get a bad night’s sleep. But your bed detects your tossing and turning and takes action. It checks your schedule for the coming day, sets your alarm clock back an hour, then instructs your coffee maker to brew an extra-strong cup which is waiting for you when you get up. You put on a gray work shirt, which does a quick scan of your heart rate and other vital functions as you polish off your last box of breakfast cereal. Then you head out to your self-driving car, which zips you smoothly to the office, coordinating with both traffic lights and surrounding cars to avoid traffic backups. Meanwhile your house locks the doors, adjusts the thermostat, and starts up the robotic vacuum cleaner. After work, as you’re heading out for drinks with friends, your conservative gray shirt detects your newly relaxed brain waves and changes to a more casual color and print. As you arrive home that evening, a new box of cereal arrives by drone – your pantry had noticed the empty box, and bought a new one for you.
You’ve probably heard of the Internet of Things – the practice of installing sensors and Internet connectivity in everyday items to help them communicate with their owner, and with other “smart” objects. But perhaps you haven’t realized how soon it will start transforming our lives. While the seamless interactions described above are still years away, the underlying technology for each of these innovations already exists. And products ranging from smart beds to color-changing and fitness monitoring clothes are already on the market – with self-driving cars and drone delivered groceries quite clearly on the horizon. Some analysts predict that by 2020, 50 billion smart objects will be linked on the Internet – not counting computers, tablets and smartphones – in a market that will soon be worth almost $19 trillion.
So the Internet of Things era is not only approaching, it’s already here. The question is: Is that necessarily a good thing? Here are three ways this technology could make your life dramatically better, and three causes for serious concern.
Let’s start with the positive:
- Boosting your health: Millions of people already use wearable fitness monitors like FitBit to record their activity level, heart rate and sleep patterns, while similar technology has become a standard feature of smart watches. Meanwhile, more ambitious monitoring technology is being incorporated into other forms of clothing – and even into diapers. And tiny, ingestible, web-enabled sensors are now available for medical use, allowing patients to receive continuous assessments on their health and medication needs while they go about their daily lives. This could help doctors detect and treat individual medical issues more effectively, while providing valuable data on entire populations, without the cost and inconvenience of hospital stays.
- Saving you time: Smart technology is poised to transform practically every mundane activity in your daily schedule, from commuting to cooking dinner. Take shopping, for instance: Once smart objects combine with an enabling infrastructure of retailers, payments providers and delivery systems, our devices might handle most purchases for us. Imagine your dishwasher buying its own detergent refills, or your refrigerator keeping itself perma-stocked with groceries. Some analysts believe these scenarios will become a reality in the next 10 years.
- Transforming your world: The Internet of Things won’t just optimize an individual’s health and daily routine – it will dramatically impact society as a whole. “Smart cities” will use it to monitor and respond to everything from crime to potholes. Farmers will use it to maximize yields. Governments will use it to maintain infrastructure, boost efficiencies – and even improve national defense. The cumulative impact of these improvements in energy and resource use could even help fight climate change.
Excited yet? Now consider some darker scenarios:
- More tech, more problems: Remember that time you spent an hour and a half on the phone with an incomprehensible, vaguely hostile tech support agent, trying to configure your latest gadget? Now multiply that experience by every item in your house. And the more dependent we become on smart technology, the more disruptive it will be when it malfunctions.
- The dangers of data: Billions of connected devices constantly broadcasting detailed sensor readings gives new meaning to the term “big data.” And if all those devices are transmitting that data in proprietary formats, the true potential of the Internet of Things – i.e.: devices seamlessly interacting with each other – will never be realized. Though consortiums of tech companies are working to pre-empt this problem through uniform standards, many major players are focused on popularizing their own standards, and other questions remain. Where will all this data be stored, and crucially, how will it be protected? While you may be happy for your “smart shirt” to transmit health data to your doctors, sharing it with marketers or employers is another story.
- Homicide by hacking: The issue of security goes beyond data usage. Imagine the risks once the Internet of Things is fully integrated into our lives. A determined hacker could open your front door, disable your lights or security system, or even tamper with your car during your morning commute. Taken a step further, if your pacemaker or insulin pump is connected to the Internet, the potential for dangerous and even deadly hacking increases. And once online connectivity is entwined with a city’s electrical grid or water infrastructure, or a military’s fleet of armed drones, the impact of a cyber attack is frightening to contemplate.
On the plus side, it’s clear that both public and private sector actors are aware of these dangers, and are working to address them. And the potential good still outweighs the bad. But as the Internet of Things era advances and both its benefits and risks are manifested in our daily lives, we may be in for some interesting – and nerve-wracking – years.