The Unintended Consequnces of The Internet of Things

March 9th, 2014 Comments off

If you’ve been paying attention to the technology hype-machine recently, you’ve probably come across the term “The Internet of Things,” or its snappy acronym, The “IoT.”  In business terms, The IoT is in the strategic playbook of every IT related company looking for the “Next Big Thing.”  In technology terms, The IoT is the extension of computation and communications into every nook and cranny of, basically, everything that has a nook or a cranny; think every machine tool, every heating system, every light bulb, then, think beyond that.

The IoT isn’t really that new, but it is gathering momentum as a technological, and society shaping, force.  You can see the evolution of The IoT in the technological history of our automobiles.  The first automobile to include a microprocessor was the 1978 Cadillac Seville, which contained a Motorola 6802, an 8-bit microprocessor that powered a simple “trip computer.”  Before that automobiles were entirely electro-chemical-mechanical devices, containing absolutely no software at all.  Today, virtually every new car is a rolling software machine crammed with dozens, if not hundreds, of networked microprocessors.   Given the apparent importance of computation to the function of an automobile, it’s a wonder that yesterday’s cars could even roll downhill on their own before the invention of the microprocessor.  Of course, automobiles weren’t the only things to be computerized, virtually every kind of machine that could be improved (reduced costs, improved performance, additional features) by including computation in its design, has been.

This IoT fueled trend of finding applications for embedded computational power is now beginning to extend beyond instrumenting and controlling mechanical contraptions, to instrumenting (and controlling) people.  Today, very few of us, except perhaps those with pacemakers, have microprocessors embedded in, or strapped to, our bodies.  That, is quickly changing.  Personal activity monitors are becoming increasingly popular, and are now even being developed for our pets (so you can use a computer more powerful than the one that landed the Lunar Module on the Moon to confirm that your dog did sleep nineteen hours yesterday, just like the day before that).  We are now rapidly entering a future in which it will be unusual for a Human, in the developed world, not to have a number of computers embedded inside their personal nooks and crannies.  The first wave of this trend is already coming ashore, and is being happily surfed by fitness buffs, early adopters, and self-modifiers.  The second wave is just off-shore, and starting to rise up; it is going to crash over soldiers, prisoners, mental patients, and people who want medical insurance.  If you want an inkling of how this will play out, just watch what we end up doing to our pets, many of whom are already frequently “chipped” for identification, not a personal choice on their part, presumably.

Given all the new places to put computers, the market for such technology has been estimated to be around $19 Trillion dollars, with it hitting $8.9 Trillion by 2020.  If you think about those numbers for a bit (they’re big), you’ll understand the source of the hype, and the dollar signs that pop, to the sound of an old-timey cash register, into the eyes of IT CEO’s everywhere,

Is the hype justified? Yes. It is.  In fact, it may be just a tad underplayed.  Here’s why: The IoT is nothing short of the intellectual equivalent of mechanization.  Basically, mechanization replaced energy provided by the muscles of Humans and animals with energy provided by fossil fuels (mostly coal at the beginning).  The fundamental effect of mechanization was to remove biological muscle from the loop of making things move (even sailing ships need Humans to pull on ropes).  Freed from biologically based physical limitations, it was possible to mechanize virtually everything (plows, machine tools, ships), and to create things no one could envision when the first steam engines were developed (spacecraft). The economic consequences were vast and far reaching; for instance, in 1870, 70-80% of the population in the United States was employed on a farm, in 2008, because of mechanization, that figure was only 2-3%.  The IoT does something that is similar, as fundamental, but also much more disruptive; it removes Humans from the loop of making things compute and communicate.  Computation and communications are two of the most disruptive technologies Humans have ever created.  Removing Humans from the loop leaves few, if any, real constraints on disruption, in every meaning of that word, and that, is the fundamental “value proposition” of The Internet of Things.  Mechanization still had/has to content with friction and gravity.  The IoT?  Not so much.  That’s different, really different.  Mechanization changed our world forever. The IoT? It will change more things.

The impact of some of this change is visible today, but has not, yet, really begun to play out.  It is clear from the evolution of the marriage between automobiles and computers, that this is not an entirely new development, as computers have been communicating with each other, without Humans, for decades.  However, one needs to remember that these kinds of revolutions don’t fully resolve or reveal themselves overnight either, if ever.  One hundred and twenty-seven years separates the development of the steam engine (1781) from the introduction of Henry Ford’s Model T (1908).  Only thirty-six years separates the introduction of the first microprocessor, the Intel 4004  (1971) from the Apple iPhone (2007); things do change a bit faster in the computer world, but they’re still not instantaneous.

So what do we do?  When things are changing quickly and dramatically, it behooves us to think long and hard about unintended consequences.  This is a recurring phenomenon associated with change; something changes, and then, many (or not so many) years later, something else happens as a result that completely surprises everyone.  This effect, and a warning, is nicely encapsulated in the idiom “Careful what you wish for.”  With The Internet of Things, we, as a civilization, need to understand that while we are wishing for a new $19 Trillion market for computers, we are not going to just get the things we expect, but that we will also get things that we don’t expect, and things that we could neither expect nor wish for (Will the computers inside your body be controlled by you, or someone else? Will they be able to control you?  Can you remove them without legal penalty?).  We must understand that The Internet of Things is a virtual fountain of unintended consequences; maybe even the ultimate source of unintended consequences.

Can we foretell some of the unintended consequences of The IoT? Can we pick the best, and avoid the worst?  Perhaps, a bit. The trick is to balance the forces of unconstrained technological change with the social and economic realities that govern everything.  It’s always amusing to read predictions of the future made decades ago that the automobiles of today would all be flying cars, ignoring the fact that it takes less energy, and is far simpler, and thus far cheaper, to roll things around on wheels than it is to lift things into the sky and keep them there.  Of course, given that early computers were huge and could weigh 30 Tons, there aren’t many predictions that they would be put inside automobiles; that idea would never fly.

Where do we start digging for the unintended consequences of The Internet of Things?  As far away from technology as possible. In the next blog, we will look into the nooks and crannies of Brand Management, and the unintended consequences The IoT will bring to that noble endeavor.

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