May 17--Like so much in the communications age, the long-foretold Internet of Things has sneaked up on us.
The term Internet of Things (coined by MIT'sKevin Ashton in 1999) denotes a world in which appliances, physical objects, clothing, sensors, and data systems are all wirelessly networked, allowing you to monitor and control them from afar, on the go -- and, alas, for them to monitor you.
Many people now monitor their houses (temperature, surveillance cameras, crock pot making dinner, fridge, budgie-cage warmer) remotely. Already there are hundreds of gadgets you can app-erate on your mobile device, from garage door openers and security systems to pacemakers and implantable insulin pumps. And there are single-hub control systems, such as Staples Connect. It's estimated that by 2016 about 19 billion intelligent devices will be wirelessly networked -- about 2.5 per person on Earth.
Foremost has been the smart car, starting for you, parking for you, and avoiding fender-benders. About 1.5 million people, for example, already drive smart Fords. New models can synchronize Ford's SYNC system with the software called AppLink, so you can voice-control your smartphone apps while in your car, orchestrating your world while on wheels.
On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center Internet Project and Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center released a big survey about all this. Lee Rainie, director of the Pew project, says it was time: "There seems to be a critical mass. More and more companies are building infrastructure and new products, like the Samsung Gear line of smart watches, Google Glass, and personal drones."
So, is the Internet of Things a good thing of things?
The study, titled "The Internet of Things Will Thrive By 2025," is a curious document. It surveys 1,867 experts and industry soothsayers. The gist: The Internet of Things will be great, and there will be issues -- chief among them privacy and security.
"Eighty-three percent say, 'Yup, it'll happen and have benefits,' " Rainie said, "then they say, 'But here are the things you're going to have to worry about as we move into this world,' many cautionary notes to policymakers and engineers, saying, 'This could go very wrong if we're not careful.' "
By 2025, said respondents, our devices "will be interacting with the physical and virtual worlds more than interacting with us. The devices are going to disappear into what we wear and/or carry." We will, they predicted, "talk to devices in essentially the same way we talk to other people." (Siri is already here, and Samantha of Her is set in only the "slight" future.)
"Yes, you will be permanently connected to the network via wearable devices." (If you think you can't escape work now . . ..)
Another inescapable thing: data collection. "Every part of our life will be quantifiable and eternal, and we will answer to the community for our decisions," writes social media maven Laurel Papworth. If you decide to skip the gym today, "your gym shoes [will] auto tweet . . . to the peer-to-peer health insurance network that will decide to degrade your premiums."
If the self becomes totally quantifiable, a specter rises: the sacrifice of privacy. Reading my blood sugar, blood pressure, and other vitals could help my doctor track and treat me. But once your private data exist, as Rainie puts it, "there's usually a way for someone else to get at them, whether it's law enforcement, companies, or government entities."
Many respondents focused on how the Internet of Things will intersect with Big Data -- the brave, current world of lightning-fast crunching of unthinkably vast info-universes, sifting and shifting to learn what the sifters and shifters want to know about you.
"By 2025, we will have long ago given up our privacy," said college professor Peter Jacoby. "The Internet of Things will demand -- and we will give willingly -- our souls."
Much negotiation lies ahead over how to handle these matters. A coming Pew report asks this huge question: "Will we or won't we by 2025 have worked out a commercial regime in which both users and retailers are happy with how info is used? Where there's some balance with which most people are happy?" (Hope so.)
More heartening is what respondents say about us, the users.
"Human beings have a say," as Rainie puts it. "As users, we discover undreamed-of uses for new tech the designers never saw. We'll do the same with our smart houses, cars, sneakers, and fridges."
And as we do, we may shape the Internet of Things into an Internet of Us.
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