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New Elon-Pew Internet study predicts effects of "The Internet of Things" by 2025

Experts predict enhanced health, convenience and productivity while also sharing concerns about privacy, hyped expectations and complexity problems.

A canvassing of technology experts, builders and users has found wide agreement that the Internet of Things, the billions of devices connected to the Internet, will make substantial inroads into many aspects of everyday life in the next decade. The expert predictions are chronicled in a report about the future of the Internet by the Pew Research Center Internet Project and the Imagining the Internet Center, an initiative of Elon University's School of Communications.

> Full survey results from Elon's Imagining the Internet Center

More than 1,600 people, among them some of the world’s top technology experts, discussed how today’s trends indicate the evolution of the Internet of Things by the year 2025. “They say there will be a continuing proliferation of tech screens, wearable devices, connected appliances and artifacts, ‘smart’ grids, and environments full of sensors and cameras,” explained Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet project, “They expect this will produce significant change.”

Survey respondents expect the Internet of Things to be evident in many places, including:

  • Bodies: Many people will wear devices that let them connect to the Internet and will give them feedback on their activities, health and fitness. They will also monitor others (their children or employees, for instance) who are also wearing sensors, or moving in and out of places that have sensors.
  • Homes: People will be able to control nearly everything remotely, from how their residences are heated and cooled to how often their gardens are watered. Homes will also have sensors that warn about everything from prowlers to broken water pipes.
  • Communities: Embedded devices and smartphone apps will enable more efficient transportation and give readouts on pollution levels. “Smart systems” might deliver electricity and water more efficiently and warn about infrastructure problems.
  • Goods and services: Factories and supply chains will have sensors and readers that more precisely track materials to speed up and smooth out the manufacture and distribution of goods.
  • Environment: There will be real-time readings from fields, forests, oceans, and cities about pollution levels, soil moisture, and resource extraction that allow for closer monitoring of problems.

This is part of Pew Internet’s on-going effort to assess the future of the Internet around the time of the 25 anniversary of the Web. In this report, these experts speak to six broad themes about the impact of the Internet of Things:

Theme 1) The Internet of Things and wearable computing will progress significantly between now and 2025.

Theme 2) The realities of this data-drenched world raise substantial concerns about privacy and people’s abilities to control their own lives. If everyday activities are monitored and people are generating informational outputs, the level of profiling and targeting will grow and amplify social, economic, and political struggles.

Theme 3) Information interfaces will advance—especially voice and touch commands. But few expect that brain-to-network connectivity will be typical in most people’s daily lives by 2025.

Theme 4) There will be complicated, unintended consequences: ‘We will live in a world where many things won’t work and nobody will know how to fix them.’

Theme 5) The unconnected and those who just don’t want to be connected may be disenfranchised. Consider the ramifications of digital divides.

Theme 6) Individuals’ and organizations’ responses to the Internet of Things will recast the relationships people have with each other and with groups of all kinds.

“These experts say the next digital revolution is the expanding and often-invisible spread of the Internet of Things,” noted Janna Anderson, director of Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center and a co-author of the report. “They expect positive change that will impact health, transportation, shopping, industrial production and the environment. But they also warn about the privacy implications of this new data-saturated world and about the complexities involved in making networked devices work together.”

Following is a small selection of expert responses to the survey:

Patrick Tucker, author of The Naked Future: What Happens In a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? provided a nice working description of the Internet of Things, writing: “Here are the easy facts: In 2008, the number of Internet-connected devices first outnumbered the human population, and they have been growing far faster than have we. There were 13 billion Internet-connected devices in 2013, according to Cisco, and there will be 50 billion in 2020. These will include phones, chips, sensors, implants, and devices of which we have not yet conceived.”

JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, was particularly pointed in describing the benefits that will emerge in this new environment: “The proliferation of sensors and actuators will continue. ‘Everything’ will become nodes on a network. The quality of real-time information that becomes available will take the guesswork out of much of capacity planning and decision-making… The net effect will be to reduce waste everywhere: in physical flows and logistics, in the movement of people and goods; in logical flows and logistics, in the movement of ideas and information; decisions will be made faster and better, based on more accurate information; prior errors in assumption and planning will be winkled out more effectively. ‘Inventory’ will be reduced, as will the waste associated with the decay that is an intrinsic part of inventory. This will affect the food you buy and cook and eat; the fuel you use to power yourself, your devices, and your vehicles; the time you take to do things; and, as you learn to live longer, the burden of care will reduce as a result of far better monitoring of, and response to, your physical and emotional state, in terms of healthcare. Our notions of privacy and sharing will continue to evolve as a result, with new tradeoffs needing to be understood and dealt with.”

Paul Saffo, managing director of Discern Analytics, wrote, “Most of our devices will be communicating on our behalf—they 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. For example, the glasses interface will shrink to near-invisibility in conventional glasses. The devices will also become robustly inter-networked (remember the first conversations about body networks of a decade ago?). The biggest shift is a strong move away from a single do-everything device to multiple devices with overlapping functions and, above all, an inter-relationship with our other devices.”

Laurel Papworth, social media educator, explained, “Every part of our life will be quantifiable, and eternal, and we will answer to the community for our decisions. For example, skipping the gym will have your gym shoes auto tweet (equivalent) to the peer-to-peer health insurance network that will decide to degrade your premiums. There is already a machine that can read brain activity, including desire, in front of advertising by near/proximity. I have no doubt that will be placed into the Big Data databases when evaluating hand gestures, body language, and pace for presenting social objects for discussion/purchase/voting.”

Minority view: Not so fast

Many respondents added to their portrait of the emerging benefits of the Internet of Things with warnings about the problems that would accompany the tech advances. Some were generally less optimistic about how far the Internet of Things would advance and whether the benefits would be as extensive as their peers envision. A typical version of this line was offered by Bill St. Arnaud, a self-employed green Internet consultant, who wrote, “The Internet of Things has been in the red zone of the hypometer for over a decade now. Yes, there will be many niche applications, but it will not be the next big thing, as many pundits predict. If the Internet of Things had any true validity, you would think you would start to see evidence of its presence on early adopter Internet networks.”

One critical unknown is the degree to which people will outsource their attention to devices and appliances in the Internet of Things, or focus on devices that display all these data, at the expense of activities taking place in their vicinity. Karl Fogel, partner at Open Tech Strategies, president at QuestionCopyright.org, wrote in response to this question, “No, yuck, we don’t need this, and most people aren’t asking for it. I’ve never been quite clear on where the demand is supposedly coming from. The scarce resource will continue to be human attention. There is a limit to the usefulness of devices that are worn in public but that demand attention because it is often socially and practically unacceptable to give those devices enough attention to make them worth the trouble of configuring and interacting with.”

The co-founder of a consultancy with practices in Internet technology and biomedical engineering wrote, “Inter-networked wearables will remain a toy for the wealthy. They will possibly serve special purposes in environments like prisons, hospitals, and the battlefield. Inter-networked devices are a lovely convenience and the cost of building Bluetooth, NFC, RFID, WiFi, etc. into new devices is reasonable—but the effect on everyday lives is negligible. If my bathroom scale tells my smartphone how much I weigh, that is handy but hardly life-changing. There are tremendous upsides of networked devices for special-purpose roles, but, in my humble opinion, not for benefiting everyday life in a revolutionary way. Compare the Samsung watch and Google Glass to calculator watches of the 1970s—useful proof of concept, but more of a fad than a trend, of interest to a few, and ridiculed by many others. Gaze tracking is a mature technology and we do not have any killer app for it now—I wouldn’t expect it to dominate the hearts and minds of the public after another 11 years.”

The report about these predictions comes in the sixth canvassing of experts done by the Pew Research Center in association with the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University. It is the second report generated out of the results of Web-based questions fielded from late November 2013 to early January 2014. It gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. (The full set of expert predictions, for-credit and anonymous can be found here: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/imagining/surveys/2014_survey/2025_Internet_Impact.xhtml)

Here are some of the key respondents in this report:

Joel Halpern a distinguished engineer at Ericsson; Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; Fred Baker, Cisco Systems Fellow; danah boyd, a social scientist for Microsoft; Stowe Boyd, lead at GigaOM Research; Bob Briscoe, chief researcher for British Telecom; Robert Cannon, Internet law and policy expert; Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist at Google; David Clark, senior scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; David-Michel Davies, executive director, The Webby Awards; Glenn Edens, research scientist at PARC and IETF area chair; Jeremy Epstein, a senior computer scientist at SRI International; Bob Frankston, Internet pioneer and technology innovator; Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft; Jim Hendler, Semantic Web scientist and professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center at the City University of New York; Michael Kende, professional economist; Mike Liebhold, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future; Geoff Livingston, author and president of Tenacity5 Media; Isaac Mao, chief architect of Sharism Lab; John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times; Ian Peter, pioneer Internet activist and Internet rights advocate; Raymond Plzak, former CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, now a member of the board of ICANN; Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review; JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com; Howard Rheingold, pioneering Internet sociologist and self-employed writer, consultant, and educator; Mike Roberts, Internet Hall of Famer and longtime leader with ICANN; Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center; Paul Saffo, managing director of Discern Analytics and consulting associate professor at Stanford; Henning Schulzrinne, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame, IETF leader, and professor at Columbia University Doc Searls, director of ProjectVRM at Harvard’s Berkman Center; Patrick Stack, manager for digital transformation at Accenture; Hal Varian, chief economist for Google; Amy Webb, CEO of strategy firm Webbmedia Group; and David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center.

Here is a selection of other institutions at which respondents work or have affiliations:

Yahoo; Intel; IBM; Hewlett-Packard; Nokia; Amazon; Netflix; Verizon; PayPal; BBN; Comcast; US Congress; EFF; W3C; The Web Foundation; PIRG: NASA; Association of Internet Researchers; Bloomberg News; World Future Society; ACM; the Aspen Institute; Magid; GigaOm; the Markle Foundation; The Altimeter Group; FactCheck.org; key offices of US and European Union governments; the Internet Engineering Task Force; the Internet Hall of Fame; ARIN; Nominet; Oxford Internet Institute; Princeton, Yale, Brown, Georgetown, Carnegie-Mellon, Duke, Purdue, Florida State and Columbia universities; the universities of Pennsylvania, California-Berkeley, Southern California, North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Kentucky, Maryland, Kansas, Texas-Austin, Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Boston College.

Dan Anderson,
Staff
5/12/2014 5:55 PM