Pew Research: Internet of Things will be overwhelmingly beneficial. Everyone and everything will be affected

Technology thought leaders around the world overwhelmingly believe the Internet of Things will be a force for good —though a reasonable minority harbour doubts about how it will be applied. That is the headline from a new study out of the Pew Research Internet Project, part of a year-long program of research to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web.

Previous studies have examined the rapid uptake of the Web and general societal views of its impact as well as the Internet’s future. This study differs with Pew’s usual approach, in that it is based largely on qualitative research.

According to the authors, “This current report is an analysis of opinions about the likely expansion of the Internet of Things (sometimes called the Cloud of Things), a catchall phrase for the array of devices, appliances, vehicles, wearable material, and sensor-laden parts of the environment that connect to each other and feed data back and forth.

The study is based on over 1600 responses to an enquiry about where the Internet of Things would stand by the year 2025. Respondents to the survey painted a world where the IoT touches almost all aspects of human endeavor. For instance:

  • 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.

Pew explored conflicting opinions around a range of themes. For instance, respondents generally believed significant strides will be made in implementing the IoT (and also wearable technology) within the decade.

Salesforce.com’s chief scientist, JP Rangaswami, told the researchers, “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. We will really understand what it means to move from ‘stocks’ to ‘flows,’ as in the Hagel-Seely Brown-Davison model.

He said the the net effect of this 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.

Privacy and the proliferation of personal data rated as concerns. According to Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society,“It will have widespread beneficial effects, along with widespread negative effects. There will be conveniences and privacy violations.

There will be new ways for people to connect, as well as new pathways towards isolation, misanthropy, and depression.

Reich was skeptical about whether “moving computers from people’s pockets (smartphones) to people’s hands or face” would match the impact of smart mobility, but he said at the least it would continue the momentum and direction of change.

Internet pioneer and now chief internet evangelist for Google, Vint Cerf, said “The benefit is that these appliances will be coordinated to improve our daily lives.

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(Image: Vint Cerf)

But he also cautioned that there was a risk that “inimical forces might gain control and create serious problems” and he suggested that privacy will be hard to come by.

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