If you’re like me, you have a lot of stuff. Stuff which can be classified under the Internet of Things.
Stuff in the closet. Stuff in your backpack. Stuff piled up on a table, desk or maybe even your bed (I know I do).
Most of the time, this stuff feels like it’s in the way. If you’re not careful, it can even become a burden.
But what if your stuff was doing something to earn its keep?
Well, if you’re ready to try out some new technology, that’s exactly what the Internet of Things will do. Or at least, it’s supposed to.
According to Wired.com, the Internet of Things (or IoT, if you’re hip like that) is closer than most of us realize—and will do more to change our lives than even some futurists believe. But the IoT is not just a tech thing. It could mean that all that “stuff” starts, well, making your life easier.
What is the Internet of Things and why should you care about it?
As a digital marketer, a lot of my work focuses on solving immediate problems (like putting your company on the map).
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it” – Steve Jobs
But sometimes I like to pull back and look at the future of the technology we work with—because let’s be honest, we live in pretty exciting times. And the IoT is about as exciting as it gets.
For example, what if you could:
- Never go grocery shopping again
- Get in a car that already knows your destination
- Adjust anything in your home remotely—lights, temperature, the alarm—or just have it auto-adjust before you walk in
Not too shabby, right?
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because with the IoT we have the option to optimize whole cities for safety, energy efficiency and traffic conditions. And it all works because we start letting our things talk to other things.
The “Things” in the Internet of Things
(photo courtesy of Internet Marketing Genius)
Right now, you have internet. And you have things—shoes, cars, cat collars, light bulbs. But the internet is not in any of those things.
Most of us only use the internet on a few select devices, mostly computers and phones, that are specially designed for that purpose.
There are some devices that blur the line, like a Fitbit, but they have very narrow uses and it’s safe to say they’re not the majority of our belongings.
The Internet of Things asks what would happen if we flipped that equation. What if we still had a few special non-wired items—your[Office5] grandfather’s wristwatch, for example—but, for the most part, everything had an internet connection. In other words, most or all of the things you own could have an IP address and communicate with all the other things, allowing an unprecedented level of automation and machine intelligence.
Sound a little wacky? That’s fair. I’ll give you a second.
But now get this: that’s kind of where technology is heading. Not “100 years, flying cars” heading. More like “less than 20 birthday candles” heading. The Internet of Things is kind of, well, a thing.
The Two Stages of the IoT
So far I’ve talked about the IoT like it’s a single new tech that will roll out all at once. It’s not really like that. Instead, the IoT will happen in two distinct stages:
- Stage 1: Connected Everything
This stage involves equipping more and more products with internet connections so they can talk to other products. In many cases, they won’t talk directly to each other, but to an app on your phone. This will give you unprecedented control over what the products in your life are doing and when they do it.
- Stage 2: Automation
Stage 2 is much more exciting. It involves equipping things with sensors so that they can tell what’s going on. Then, they use all that information to automatically do their jobs without you telling them what to do all the time. And, since machine learning or algorithms can be applied across all these smart objects, in many case they’ll do things better than any human could tell them to do it.
In other words, Stage 2 is the shift from “remote controlled everything” to “magic.”
How big is this difference? Well, Stage 1 means you have a “smart house” where you can use your phone to turn on the AC while you drive home.
Stage 2 means your car notices you’re driving home, checks the weather, and tells your house to set the AC to the temperature you prefer—without you ever knowing that happened.
You just come home to a house that’s always pleasant with surprisingly low energy bills.
Is the IoT really that big a deal?
A common response to the IoT is, okay, so what, who cares? After all, technology is always chuggin’ forward.
In many ways, if the IoT keeps developing for 15 or 20 years, we’ll be living in an entirely different world.
Think of how magical it must have seemed to people in the 1960s the first time a supermarket door opened itself as they walked up to it. With the IoT, everything is like that.
Your order is waiting for you at the coffee shop; you can instantly locate any object you’ve misplaced; and when your kitchen cupboard sees that you’re low on cereal, a new order shows up on the doorstep.
That’s not quite Willy Wonka magical, but it’s pretty magical.
But that’s just the consumer convenience part. The IoT goes much deeper.
Apply these same ideas to any field you can imagine. Like public health. I don’t know about you, but if I was at risk of a major health condition, I wouldn’t mind getting an alert about that long before it becomes serious. In a smart world, that’s not only possible, it’s easy.
Right now, unless the entire world’s population suddenly gives up its love affair with computers, we’re going to hit Stage 2 sooner or later—and it will involve large societal change.
It will make most drudge work irrelevant to daily human life, and allow more of us to focus on interesting, creative, high-level tasks instead.
It’ll also just be fun.
The Dark Side of the IoT
So far I’ve focused on the fun parts of the IoT—all the benefits it can bring. But there will be some real problems we encounter right smack between Stage 1 and Stage 2. I call these problems the Dark Side of the IoT.
The bad news is we cannot reach all the benefits of Stage 2 until we deal with the Dark Side.
That’s because Stage 1 will discover all kinds of problems with privacy, security and safety that we can’t predict in advance.
- If a hacker can break into your smart house system, what private information of yours can they access?
- What are the safety risks of a hacker controlling thousands of devices? How about large systems, like those that run the fire alarms in an office building? What is the terror risk?
- If the corporations that make the devices have your personal information, can it be misused? How do we regulate them?
- How much can we trust machine learning or algorithms to make decisions for us? How much human control do we need?
The only way to solve these problems, as with all previous technologies, is through trial and error. And only by solving them with the less automated Stage 1 devices do we get the automated systems make our lives better in Stage 2.
How Close Are We to the IoT?
We’re close and we’re far.
As one of my favorite sites points out, big technological changes often seem like they’re 200 years away, or like they could never happen at all, until they go ahead and seem to happen out of nowhere. Generally, when a bunch of futurists are talking about an exciting future, some of their more outlandish ideas will never come true—but a whole lot of the ideas that sounded crazy are actually really accurate.
That’s what the future of the IoT is likely to be like. For example:
- Stage 1 doesn’t involve anything futuristic. In fact, many of these products are already available (I’ll get into that next time). Stage 1 just means outfitting lots “dumb” devices with batteries, connections and IP addresses, and that’s all tech we already have. Engineering it is not hard.
- Stage 2 is farther out. We need better, smaller sensors for many devices, for starters. We also need better tools for automatically analyzing data, since there will be way too much for humans to interpret on our own (actually, there already is).
So, on the one hand, we’re a long way away from an automated world that caters to your every need. On the other, we’re already getting some of these technologies into the hands of consumers and, well, they work.
So it’s going to be fits and starts for a few years until there’s a momentum where more and more devices are wired.
A lot of innovations will also depend on advances in how well tiny computers can gather and aggregate data, or connecting them isn’t very useful.
Next time around I’ll talk about some of the IoT technology that’s already in our homes. Until then, start thinking about how you’ll tell your grandkids that shoes didn’t always track the calories you burned.
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