The “Internet of Things” (IoT) — a diverse collection of technologies and devices designed to connect everyday objects to the Cloud — will likely be one of the most important technological advances of this century. The estimated number of connected devices for 2020 ranges from 8 to 50 billion (70 to 300-plus percent CAGR); as these devices come online, they stand to generate new revenue streams, revolutionize health care, create safer and more engaged communities and soften our footprint on the planet.
Connected “things” includes any number of items, from a front door lock, a wireless vital signs monitor or a motion sensor that detect earthquakes. New “things” introduced during the past year include trackers for cars, kids and pets, cellular and Wi-Fi photo frames, health and fitness monitors and products for remote medical care. These devices connect to applications and resources in the Cloud, allowing us to keep track of people, assets and events effortlessly and in real-time, providing enhanced personal and societal awareness and control.
The IoT originated out of work at MIT’s Media Lab in the late 1990s; it has substantially evolved since early researchers envisioned a world where we would “line the edges of our networks with RFID readers to collect data and interact with information.” Since then, Wi-Fi, cellular, Bluetooth and broadband have joined RFID as connectivity options for the IoT and wireless chipsets and modules have shrunk to sub-1mm2. The emergence of Cloud computing, meanwhile, has created the application and device management backbone needed to scale to and support billions of connected objects.
Consumer, governmental and business trends are also pushing us toward the IoT. A recent study revealed that 76 percent of consumers expect most electronic devices they purchase going forward to be connected to the Internet, and that these networked devices will save them time and simplify their lives. Government programs, including U.S. stimulus spending for Smart Grid and broadband expansion, are increasing collective network capacity and bringing low-power device networking to our homes. Mobile network operators have also gotten on board, establishing business units or teams focused on attracting connected devices to their networks.
Connecting ourselves and our possessions to the Internet is not without its share of inhibitors. Privacy concerns top the list of obstacles that stand in the way of full implementation of the IoT. Protecting personal privacy has been ongoing issue as the Internet has evolved; IoT kicks this concern up a notch because of its ability to collect and report information about an individual’s movements, purchases, possessions, medical status and more. Additional hindrances include creating sustainable business models, coping with information overload and resolving the digital divide.
The benefits from tackling such challenges are as big as we allow them to be. Individually, we will experience better health care at a lower cost, save energy at home, drive more safely and create meaningful new connections with our families, communities and caregivers. Collectively, the IoT can give us a cleaner environment, improve customer service and enhance security for employees, assets and communities.
How long will this all take? Longer than the next decade, I suspect, though I believe we will see increasing benefits in our personal and community lives as the IoT takes hold. The European Union has suggested the goal of “making the Internet of things and Internet of things for people.” I concur. We must be sure to keep our humanity top of mind as we move into our hyper-connected future, and strive to ensure that the developing network of connected machines is focused on serving humanity, rather than the other way around.