UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced this week an extra GBP 45 million (USD $75 million) for research on the “Internet of Things”. The promise of this technology he said, is more efficient healthcare and transportation, even helping to combat climate change. This is a view shared by companies like Cisco, whose CEO predicted the Internet of Things becoming a USD $19 trillion market in the next few years.
I have previously written about the potentially revolutionary changes that the The Internet of Things will bring about. In terms of research, it will be extremely welcome news that this area is getting the backing of the UK Government. And research is indeed needed if the Internet of Things is ever going to become something that really impacts on our lives in a way in which we will all find acceptable.
Unfortunately for the UK Government and others waiting for the promised benefits of the Internet of Things, there are at least two major obstacles that will need to be overcome before we will see wide scale interaction of the Internet of Things in our daily lives. The first and probably hardest of the obstacles that will have to be overcome is that of privacy, or more specifically, the vast opportunity that the Internet of Things offers to people who want to take advantage of the potentially highly invasive nature of these devices. The second major challenge is how to make objects and structures that are semi-permanent of upgraded infrequently part of the Internet of Things.
Probably the biggest challenge to the Internet of Things will be concerns about privacy. On the surface, even having something as innocuous as a fridge that tracks its contents may seem not much of a risk. The first thing to consider however is that the information being collected could be shared with insurance companies or governments. Health insurers would be interested for example if you were eating high fat foods whilst claiming for treatment of high cholesterol or cardiovascular disease. Other companies, including employers, might be interested in how much beer you are consuming or an overall health index of the contents of your fridge. Another example concerns devices like the Nest thermostat that can collect information about how many people live in a home and when they are there. Obviously this may be sensitive information for a whole host of reasons.
It is worth pointing out that even though the Internet of Things is ostensibly controlled by corporations, we have already witnessed the leakiness of this data allowing governments and their intelligence agencies unfettered access.
The half-life of the things in the Internet of Things
A major determinant of the pace of change of a technology is how quickly different versions of the device are released and more importantly how often the hardware is replaced. This means that small and relatively cheap devices like health sensors like the Fitbit could develop very quickly compared to a smart fridge which is only upgraded every 10-20 years. This becomes even more of a challenge when introducing smart capabilities to major infrastructure such as buildings or roads. In this case, being able to retro-fit intelligent devices to these structures is often the only practicable approach but this still has to deal with things like cars, lifts, building control systems and other components that collaborate in the overall network.
Overcoming the obstacles
Although people will try and overcome the obstacles to the Internet of Things by technical means, the concerns about privacy are going to remain the most intractable and will require either the general public changing its views to becoming less concerned about these issues or governments and organisations managing to convince the public that they have changed and are genuinely not going to abuse their positions of authority and power. Given the reluctance of the government organisations in particular to give up their spying capabilities, it will take a concerted effort on the part of the public and organisations who want to promote this technology to make them change their attitude.