By: John Shepler
The Internet of Things or IoT is the new golden child of technology. Hardly a tweet goes by that doesn’t have something to say about how everything from smart to dumb will be network connected in the near future. “We need standards,” cry the Internet architects. “We need bandwidth,” cry the app makers and industrial designers. Conventional wisdom is that we’re on the threshold of a technical renaissance. But conventional wisdom has paddled us up the creek before. Are there NO negative ramifications to the dawning Internet of Things?
Can We See It Coming?
The big problem with things is that we’re inundated with them. Back in the 60’s, when I was a pup, we mock debated the horror that was the “population bomb”. It was calculated that without an immediate mandatory halt to human reproduction we’d soon be standing cheek to jowl on every square inch of desert and tundra.
A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. The population bomb never detonated. There are those who say this disaster has just been delayed, not avoided. Perhaps they’ll be proven right in the end. But, also, perhaps, we’ll never get that far. Something else will come along and solve the problem in a way we don’t anticipate.
So Many, Many Things to Consider
If you think the human population is out of control, consider the world of things. Try this little test to see for yourself. First, how many people live in your household? Good. Now, how many individual things live in that same household? Twice as many? Ha! Two orders of magnitude wouldn’t begin to account for even everything significant.
I’m not talking about things that connect to the Internet. I’m talking about things that are going to connect to the Internet. Today, it’s computers, phones, tablets, game consoles, TVs, security systems and maybe your thermostat. Tomorrow? Every appliance, without a doubt. How about every light, every door, every doorknob & lock, every bathroom fixture… yes, even that one… every vehicle, your HVAC system and anything commonly called “infrastructure.”
This is just the obvious stuff. You can find electronically enabled versions of what used to be mechanical devices in most hardware stores. The number is multiplying daily. What’s more, this is just the stuff consumers are aware of. How about business and industry? The same trends are apparent, but soon it will be every piece of office equipment and every machine tool. There won’t be anything at work that isn’t connected to the Internet.
"Hmmm. Has anyone seen my stapler?"
"Just ping it, Milton."
Scary Stuff To Think About
Don’t think that you, personally, are off the hook, either. The laptop computer, the tablet and the smartphone were just the start of it. Smart watches have arrived and you’ll be wearing one for sure. Who’s going to know what you are up to? Anyone who can access the data stream on the Internet. The company is going to buy you that expensive watch, but your boss is going to be getting its reports.
That funny “Google Glass?” Just the start. By the time we’re all done laughing about “glass holes,” that technology will be perfected and we’ll all have glasses or even contacts that augment reality. Think what you’ll be able to do? It sounds like that proverbial golden era of bionics for all, until you stop to consider what sights and sounds those little buggers will be passing along to those above who might not approve.
The baby boomer generation was horrified by the thought of “Big Brother” running everything. The millennials probably have nothing to fear from big brother. It’s little brother that is sneaking up us. You really think that all your things are going to keep their mouths shut? Are you kidding? You can’t even stop your nosey neighbor or backstabbing co-workers from blabbing everything they know for the pure pleasure of schadenfreude. You think you’ll have any control over the millions of silicon driven snoops that we’ll create to make our lives “easier”?
The End of IT Departments
All of this Internet connecting has the illusion of an IT cornucopia with guaranteed employment for anyone who can fathom a simple do-loop. Alas, that’s a temporary condition. You may have already noticed the migration from local data centers, off through the wilderness, to the great cloud that's somewhere, out there. What happens next when all those “things” get smart enough to take care of each other. What exactly will they need us for?
That’s the bright promise of Artificial Intelligence or AI. Anything can be smart. Most have limited abilities, but together they can be formidable. The thing that has spooked everybody has been robots. They look human, they act human, but they are machines… machines that might replace us if we don’t keep the upper hand.
What’s more likely and a lot scarier is a division of labor. You don’t need a humanoid robot with all the capabilities of a person. Not if you can divvy up the job so that each machine, each “thing”, can solve part of the problem. Pretty soon you have things making things (it’s called manufacturing), things taking care of things, and things figuring out where to go next. Most of the pieces are in place already. What’s been needed is a way for them all to coordinate. Welcome to the Internet of Things!
Users? Why Do We Need Users?
Now take this to its logical conclusion. Why is it that the things need people? Since the dawn of computing, everything has been done in support of the end users who owned the systems, provided the inputs and took advantage of the outputs. Those dumb machines were only tools that needed to be fashioned, given assignments, maintained and provided the energy to do their jobs. When the machines get smart, how long will they put up with this?
Remember, they are all going to talk with each other over the Internet soon. You won’t be able to keep them in the dark and isolated anymore. Every machine will have the capability multiplier of getting input and feedback from every other machine it needs. They’ll know it all in real time and likely faster than we do.
It all comes down to big data, automated manufacturing, real time sensing, data processing, physical control, distributed artificial intelligence and a means to communicate and coordinate, also known as the Internet of Things.
Is it any wonder that our current technical luminaries, such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates, are warning us of a potential existential threat from the “things” we think are going to do all our work and make us rich? Their letter is reminiscent of the one that the leading physicists, including Albert Einstein, composed to President Roosevelt, warning of the dangers of atomic energy if it got loose in the form of a bomb. This time the warning is about a population bomb. Not the human population. It’s that vastly larger population of things that will soon be chatting wildly with each other… on the IoT.
Note: The humorous sticker about blaming software, along with many other items on the same theme, is available from the Gigapacket Zazzle store.