The Internet of Things is coming. And the tech cognoscenti aren’t sure that’s a good thing.
For years, the prospect of an online world that extends beyond computers, phones, and tablets and into wearables, thermostats, and other devices has generated plenty of excitement and activity. But now, some of the brightest tech minds are expressing some doubts about the potential impact on everything from security and privacy to human dignity and social inequality.
That’s the conclusion of a new survey from the Pew Research Center. For ten years, the Washington, D.C. think tank has surveyed thousands of technology experts–like founding father Vint Cerf and Microsoft social media scholar danah boyd–about the future of the Internet. But while previous editions have mostly expressed optimism, this year people started expressing more concern. “We had a lot of warnings, a lot of people pushing back,” says Janna Anderson, co-author of the report.
The Internet of Broken Things
The 1,606 respondents said they saw many potential benefits to the Internet of Things. New voice- and gesture-based interfaces could make computers easier to use. Medical devices and health monitoring services could help prevent and treat diseases. Environmental sensors could detect pollution. Salesforce.com chief scientist JP Rangaswami said that improved logistics and planning systems could reduce waste.
But most of the experts warned of downsides as well. Security was one of the most immediate concerns. “Most of the devices exposed on the internet will be vulnerable,” wrote Jerry Michalski, founder of the think tank REX. “They will also be prone to unintended consequences: they will do things nobody designed for beforehand, most of which will be undesirable.”
We’ve already seen security camera DVRs hacked to mine bitcoins as well as a worm that targets internet connected devices like home routers. As more devices come online, we can expect to see an increase in this kind of attack.
Beyond security concerns, there’s the threat of building a world that may be too complex for our own good. If you think error messages and applications crashes are a problem now, just wait until the web is embedded in everything from your car to your sneakers. Like the VCR that forever blinks 12:00, many of the technologies built into the devices of the future may never be used properly. “We will live in a world where many things won’t work and nobody will know how to fix them,” wrote Howard Rheingold.
So Many Left Behind
That complexity could also leave many people behind. Developing nations–precisely the ones that could most benefit from IoT’s environmental benefits–will be least able to afford them, says Miguel Alcaine, an International Telecommunication Union area representative for Central America. In an interview, Pew’s Internet & American Life Project director Lee Raine pointed out that the IoT could lead to a much larger digital divide, one in which those who cannot or choose not to participate are shut out entirely from many daily activities. What happens when you need a particular device to pay for items at your local convenience store?
Meanwhile, those that do partake in the IoT may find it dehumanizing, especially in the workplace. We’ve already seen some companies explore the possibility of monitoring their employees through wearables. “The danger will be in loss of privacy and a reduction of people into numbers: the dark side of the quantified self,” wrote Andrew Chen, a computer information systems professor of at Minnesota State University. Peter R. Jacoby, an English professor at San Diego Mesa College, summed up this line of thought bluntly: “By 2025, we will have long ago give up our privacy. The Internet of Things will demand–and we will give willingly–our souls.”
Not everyone thinks this loss of privacy is inevitable. Harvard fellow David “Doc” Searls argues that we needn’t sacrifice our privacy in order to enjoy the advantages of connected devices. There’s no reason that all devices must connect to the internet as opposed to private networks. And even those that are connected to the public internet could use encryption to talk to private servers, protecting your data from large companies.
“People’s Clouds of Things can be as personal and private as their houses (and, when encrypted, even more so),” he wrote. “They can also be far more social than any ‘social network’ because they won’t involve centralized control of the kind that Facebook, Google, and Twitter provide.”
Searls imagines a world with more fine-tuned control over not just privacy, but the terms of service that govern the products we consume today. We’ve already seen some progress towards such a vision with open-source Internet of Things projects such as Spark, Tessel, Skynet and Nodered. The question is whether these types of platforms can be used to build truly open consumer products, and, if so, whether anyone will want to use them.
It’s also possible that the Internet of Things will fail to take off in any meaningful way. “The Internet of Things has been in the red zone of the hypometer for over a decade now,” Bill St. Arnaud, a self-employed green internet consultant wrote. “Yes, there will be many niche applications, but it will not be the next big thing, as many pundits predict.”
An unnamed co-founder of a consultancy with practices in internet technology and biomedical engineering agreed. “Inter-networked wearables will remain a toy for the wealthy,” he wrote. He thinks wearables and other connected devices will be useful for the military, hospitals, prisons and other niche operations, but he doesn’t expect them to be particularly life-changing.
Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, hedged his bets. “I’m not sure that moving computers from people’s pockets (smartphones) to people’s hands or face will have the same level of impact that the smartphone has had,” he wrote. “But things will trend in a similar direction. Everything that you love and hate about smartphones will be more so.”