The Future of the Internet of Things Is Amazing, If We Don't Muck It Up

For all the promise, there is some serious blood and sweat work to be done to realize the Internet of Things (IoT) future we're all imaging. Not only in terms of continuing technology innovation, but also in solving problems of standardization and protecting IoT systems from hackers.
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Man Using a Digital Tablet
Man Using a Digital Tablet

As I write this, about 3.2 billion humans are connected to the Internet, communicating with each other and sharing information. But, we're hardly alone in cyberspace. Machines are also doing the same, communicating and sharing information with each other and with us, over essentially the same complex and connected global mesh. And, they already outnumber us.

An estimated 4.9 billion sensors are connected to the Internet as of this writing, and that number is estimated reach 38 to 50 billion in just five short years. This is what's broadly powering the Internet of Things (IoT). Connected cars, connected logistics, connected clothing...connected everything.

The backbone of the Internet of things are sensors embedded everywhere gathering every single moment's worth of data, relentlessly indexing the world around us, and sending that information up to cloud servers to power applications and analysis.

Dana Blouin, leading IoT thinker and Chief Data Scientist at DRVR, provides an apt description. "I generally describe the Internet of Things as an augmentation of the current Internet, where instead of webpages there are devices. And just like how we can visit and interact with webpages we can now visit and interact with devices like a weather station, your car or your refrigerator."

Back to the Future: IoT as the next Industrialization
The hype machine professes that the impact of the Internet of Things will change, well, everything. The market for connected cars alone is projected to reach $54 billion in the next two years. The IoT market for healthcare is estimated to reach $117 billion by 2020 from applications like patient monitoring and hospital operations. And, at a cross-industry scale, market leader GE Digital estimates that the "Industrial Internet," the business-to-business IoT, as it were, has the potential to add - hold on to your hat - $15 trillion (with a "T") to the global GDP by 2035. That equates to a massive global impact on productivity, jobs and quality of life.

It is an 1893 World's Fair moment for those planning and building the Internet of Things, as the future is prophesied and the possibilities seem endless. Zach Supalla, who essentially reinvented the light bulb for the Internet era and runs his own IoT company, says "Traffic will get better with intelligent street lights. Food will get cheaper (and better) because of smart agriculture." The possibilities are endless.

Can anything stop this freight train of progress?

Train on Tracks; Meet Stop Sign
Well, there are two likely candidates that can at the very least force some, potentially long, detours. They're "security" and "standards."

If you think Twitter goes nuts when your favorite retailer or mobile carrier is hacked, wait until those hackers turn their sights to connected planes, trains, automobile, and beyond. "I think it is an absolute certainty that [connected devices] will be hacked, it's just a matter of time," Blouin told us. "Computer security is a cat and mouse game."

And, if hacks become widespread, the outcomes, and emotions, may not be pretty. The idea of hacked cars, for example, can be a very scary thing, as one Wired writer found out recently when driving around in a connected Jeep.

But, technologists are taking precautions. While security threats will continue to pop up like buoys in the ocean, the tide of innovation keeps moving. According to Supalla, steps are being taken to mitigate risk. "Most devices built today have strong encryption and security; it's the older products that create all of the stories," he said. "If you're buying a consumer IoT product, do a quick Google search to see if the communications to and from that product are encrypted (Google "nest cam encryption" for example); if they are, you're fine."

Standards, or the lack thereof, are potentially a bigger roadblock to progress. Typically, there are many devices and connections that make up an IoT system, and today they're not necessarily talking. Take the connected car, for example. For the idea of connected cars to realize its promise - where we're sipping tea as self-driving cars navigate us through busy streets, yet traffic is a thing of the past - cars need to talk to each other, and to streetlights and be monitored by the automotive equivalent of the flight traffic controller. We're not there today.

Standards can go one of two ways. Companies can take on the hard work upfront of making sure that devices and networks are compatible under a set of standard protocols and APIs. Of course, that takes time and consensus, often among vendor companies that are bitter rivals. In the meantime, innovation slows as developers wait for the winning standards to emerge. Or, it could go the free market route where innovation runs free and the most adopted technologies become the standards.

With at least five major standards bodies, and counting, we're taking the first path. The consensus among experts is that standards are important. "While it is possible that pushing toward standards could slow some things down in the short term, I believe that it will enable a lot more value in the long term," said Bill Franks, Chief Analytics Officer at Teradata, who has written extensively about what he calls the "analytics of things."

Blouin agrees. "There are obviously a ton of stakeholders in this space and coming to any sort of consensus on standards is difficult," he said. "It is going to take time and a lot of effort. That doesn't mean it's not possible; just difficult and with a lot hurdles to get over."

For all the promise, there is some serious blood and sweat work to be done to realize the IoT future we're all imaging. Not only in terms of continuing technology innovation, but also in solving the problems of standardization and protecting IoT data and systems from hackers. So, as the hype machine spins out of control, experts preach patience. IoT machines may outnumber us more than 15:1 in a few short years, but, when we look back, realizing trillions of dollars GDP growth and a better life for all will be really hard work.

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