The Future is Now

Driverless cars, artificial intelligence and robots- our world is increasingly beginning to resemble the futuristic universe envisioned by the 1960s cartoon series The Jetsons. The latest item to be added to the list of mindboggling new technologies is the ‘internet of things’ (IoT) sometimes playfully referred to as the ‘Thingternet’. It was first in 2008 that the number of internet-connected devices outnumbered the human population. The number stands around 12 billion today and is projected to reach, up to 50 billion by some estimates, by 2020. Devices from parking meters to refrigerators and insulin pumps are being hooked up to the internet. This allows a seamless transmission of information and also allows devices to be remotely controlled. Smart light-bulbs could collect data about energy consumption and adapt to switch on and off accordingly. An internet connected refrigerator could alert the local supermarket whenever items needed restocking. The ultimate goal of these smart devices is to make life easier and more efficient for people. But unlike the fanciful world of the Jetsons, these benefits do not come without a pinch of salt.

The most pressing issue here is privacy. Internet connected devices will most likely be collecting and storing large amounts of data in the cloud. This data could relate to mundane things like a user’s tastes in music but also more sensitive areas such as health. Moreover even seemingly uncontroversial information like grocery lists generated by refrigerators could be used to wean information about religion say on the basis of whether the food being ordered was kosher. Companies could also use data collected for ad purposes. Existing laws do not specify whether the data collected would belong to user of the device or the manufacturer. Grey area scenarios such as when a device is owned by a certain company and only rented by the user create further complications.

Anything connected to the internet is also vulnerable to infiltration by hackers. As has already been seen with smartphones- this puts valuable data at risk. But the internet of things adds a further dimension to this problem. Hacking a connected device would not only allow access to data, but also allow hackers to manipulate the device- with dire consequences. Imagine the havoc that could potentially be wreaked by a hacker with access to a connected driverless car, or a smart insulin pump. Manufacturers have to manoeuvre a number of trade-offs in order to ensure security for connected devices- often these devices are not sophisticated enough to handle heavy encryption and security updates, not to mention security features would further squeeze the already wafer-thin margins of the manufacturers of these devices and reduce profitability. Added layers of security might also make these devices less user-friendly.

In addition to being connected to the internet, if devices could be seamlessly inter-connected with each other- it would bring many benefits to consumers in the form of increased functionality. An article in the Economist on the subject envisions a situation where connected smoke alarms could send signals to lights and audio-visual entertainment systems to react in case of a fire and to also unlock doors. The only way to ensure inter-operability would be to establish common standards between manufacturers. Competing industry groups such as the AllSeen Alliance, the IPSO Alliance, and the Industrial Internet Consortium are trying to do just this. However the presence of multiple groups makes the establishment of a single common standard challenging, and it remains to be seen which group(s) emerges victorious, and which are left obsolete.

It is indisputable though that IoT is the next big thing. The two titans of the tech world- Apple and Google have already staked their claims. Google turned heads in 2014 with its $3.2bn acquisition of Nest labs- makers of smart thermostats and smoke detectors. Earlier this year Apple debuted its Homekit system, which allows users to sync various smart devices in the home from lightbulbs to fridges, at the Worldwide Developers Conference. A new world of possibilities awaits us.

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