How IoT Will Impact Our Society
Find out how IoT will transform fundamental institutions like the economy, the workplace and agriculture
Some call the Internet of Things (IoT) the Intelligence of Things or the Internet of Everything. By whatever name, futurists say it heralds the moment when sensor-driven data connects everything to everything else and artificial and human intelligence become a seamless whole—the planet and virtually everything in and on it transformed into a single, thinking entity.
That is the visionary view. The consensus is astonishing enough: we are in the earliest phases of a technological transformation whose impact will be at least as great as every previous cultural and industrial revolution in human history. Every object, system and technology in our present reality—from office equipment to our physical organs, from defense and security systems to the local grocery store—will be connected, and those connections, thanks to AI-driven data analytics, will make once mute objects into autonomous actors, even co-creators of the future.
A weak signal from that new world is already coming from our smartphones and tablets. Digital devices are becoming more “alive” by the year, increasingly able to see, listen, sense, interpret and act on our behalf. These intelligent devices, experts say, will continue to evolve until they are whip-smart and their intelligence is liberated from metal encasements and dispersed into the world, bringing new intelligence to energy grids and public roadways, farm fields and school rooms, factory floors and city planning offices.
“We can barely guess how big the IoT transformation is going to be.”
According to a 2015 report by the World Economic Forum, IoT will have an enormous impact in every sector of the global economy, from energy and manufacturing to agriculture and transportation—sectors that, taken together, account for nearly two-thirds of the global gross domestic product.
The multiplier effects will be profound, not only for global economies, but also for the daily lives of people everywhere, transforming the most basic elements of human society, from the future of work and school and what goes on our dinner plates to the function of government and the notion of what it is to be human.
“We’re in the beginning of the beginning,” says Alain Louchez, managing director of the Center for the Development and Application of Internet of Things Technologies, a global research program based at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “We’re in the foothills of a huge mountain we have to climb. We can barely guess how big the IoT transformation is going to be.”
Revolution in the workplace
A half-century ago, dozens of academics and technologists sent an open letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson announcing the Cybernation Revolution, marked by “the computer and the automated self-regulating machine.” Even then, the memo blamed rising unemployment on “the capability of machines rising more rapidly than the capacity of many human beings to keep pace.”
That prediction was more accurate than most. For all the talk of U.S. jobs going overseas, far more of them have been lost to automation. And as IoT gets ever larger and variously skilled digital assistants proliferate, more and more tasks will be delegated to them. A 2013 study by the Oxford Martin Programme found that almost half of all U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades, from deep legal research to bartending, not to mention the world’s manufacturing jobs.
But IoT won’t just replace jobs. It will also create new professions at the edge of human and machine interaction. It will change the nature of work. “We focus on jobs and say that IoT is going to take them away from us,” says Louchez. “But the world is not static. The world is changing, and what we perceive as a threat—and of course job loss is a real threat—could be addressed by the very technologies that we are working on now.”
The emerging IoT economy will clearly need ever more robotics engineers, smart-farming experts, tech-savvy city planners, application developers, software designers and an army of algorithm writers and data scientists. Some research actually shows IoT leading to net job growth, even in the short term. According to a 2015 study on Germany’s industrial-sector IoT by the Boston Consulting Group, as many as 70,000 data scientist positions will be created in the next decade alone.
“IoT won’t just replace jobs. It will also create new professions.”
But for those with no inclination toward computers and hard science, there is also hope in the IoT-enabled future—a world that is perhaps even more congenial than this one. A 2014 Gallup report found that as many as 70 percent of Americans don’t feel engaged by their current jobs, and the young workers who will inherit IoT are the most dissatisfied of all.
Consolations include the fact that automation and the falling price of computing power virtually guarantees that a great many of life’s necessities and even luxuries will become less expensive—and that an era of abundance and low-cost living will support a flourishing new creative class of writers, artists, designers and crafts people—what Louchez calls the “artisan economy.” Louchez even speculates that the once derided liberal arts graduates could “find themselves in demand again, as the percentage of the workforce involved in pure production shrinks.”
The changing workplace will bring a revolution in education, beginning with an aggressive new emphasis on STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math), a movement that is still in its infancy. Education will become increasingly embedded in daily life as we innovate new tools for collaborative and virtual reality learning that foster more “experiential” knowledge.
As campuses become increasingly dispersed and globally connected, education will become increasingly personalized, efficient, and constant—“dynamic” and “continuous,” as the World Economic Forum report puts it—to keep up with the pace of change. In the world of IoT, “going back to school” won’t mean taking time off from work. It will be part of the job.
The transformative politics of “civic tech”
When it comes to driving efficiency and cutting waste, nothing comes to mind more quickly than government. Innovations in smart cities will improve what has already begun at street level. For example, Boston citizens have a pothole app to feed data from smartphones to the city’s road-repair department. Los Angeles is beta testing connected traffic lights to reduce gridlock. And Chicago is putting sensors on streetlights to monitor air quality.
The next step will use the data from sensors on every part of the urban infrastructure, structured by advanced analytics, to automate the diagnosis of problems before they arise. For example, “We want to use cameras in cities for something other than surveillance,” says David Rose of the MIT Media Lab. “We could be looking at health and vitality in street life, see crowds forming, the flow of traffic, the flow of bikes.” Making such calculations with visual-recognition technologies could be useful for city governments in any number of ways, from preventing collisions between cars and bicycles to reducing blight and revitalizing neighborhoods. Researchers at Stanford University are already using machine learning and satellite imagery to predict the spread of high-poverty zones.
In October, the White House released a report entitled “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence” outlining how IoT and AI capabilities stand to transform government services and society in the coming decade. The criminal justice system, it predicted, would benefit from crime-reporting apps on citizens’ smartphones. The Labor Department and local unemployment offices will use inexpensive digital tutors to increase skills for the jobless and speed up training for the military.
Perhaps most promising are IoT’s implications for citizen engagement. In the connected future, citizens will be able to find exactly the right civil servant, congressional staffer or civic leader who can solve a particular problem—from a stop sign obscured by an overgrown tree to a line item in pending federal legislation. The constituent meetings that happen back home during long weekends and congressional recesses will happen virtually from offices on Capitol Hill, and they’ll happen far more often. And an AI-IoT collaboration on fault-free online voting could dramatically increase turnout for elections.
“IoT and AI capabilities stand to transform government services and society in the coming decade.”
IoT raises problems as well as solutions for government, most of them in the areas of privacy and security. The jury is out on how either can best be protected. David Rose suggests that, for most strictly utilitarian purposes, surveillance cameras could be programmed to obscure faces, “so it’s not about figuring out who is where in the city but gross characteristics of what’s happening in the city. You want the algorithms to do it so they’re not looking at the contents of the faces.” Barring new regulation, though, the faces could remain.
Security is an equally fraught issue. Some of the earliest smart objects, including cameras and home routers, were used in a recent exploit that brought down Twitter, Netflix and several other major sites. Homeland Security and the FBI are on it, but the more objects that get connected, the more doors in IoT there will be for black-hat hackers to pry open.
Regulation has been slow to catch up in part because the pace of digital change is faster than governments have ever been able to move. IoT may be able to help there as well. In May, Congress passed legislation called the DIGIT Act (an acronym for Developing Innovation and Growing the Internet of Things) to prioritize security and prevent IoT’s misuse.
But it’s only a beginning, says Keerti Melkote, co-founder and CTO of Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. “Ensuring that we’re providing the right level of access and level of security to the data that we’re creating through the use of all these sensors is very important,” he says. “These are very tough questions that require new policies and new laws to be put in place.”
The future of food and water
By 2050, UN statistics predict that food supplies will need to increase by 60 percent to feed the global population. That will be no small feat in a time of diminishing arable land, climate change, unpredictable weather changes and increased strain on an already challenged water supply, two-thirds of which goes to agriculture already.
That’s why one of the first and most innovative wide-scale IoT applications has been in farming. “IoT farming requires multi-sensory solutions where you’re sensing the weather, you’re sensing the soil, the crop and the seeds,” says Melkote, a graduate of Indiana’s Purdue University, which is a leader in smart-farm R&D. Such connected sensors drive data to data-analytics engines and controllers that can micro-manage the release of water and fertilizer to individual plants, a system that can greatly increase productivity growth and efficient land use. Its ability to manage self-driving and otherwise intelligent tractors, harvesters and other heavy-farm machinery, and to incorporate intelligence from increasingly sophisticated satellite imagery, makes IoT a key factor for preventing a massive food shortage in the future.
Some of IoT’s agricultural innovations are already, you might say, bearing fruit. The Economist found a California almond farmer who was able to cut his water consumption by 20 percent with cloud-connected moisture sensors—a critical innovation in a drought-ridden state where farms use 80 percent of the water supply. With new technology from a startup called Eltopia, bee farmers will be able limit the destructive effect of mites with sensors and heat instead of pesticides, a farmland and environment-friendly practice that will only become more critical in the global population boom.
While America’s large, capital-intensive farms deploy IoT solutions to cut waste and resources, small farms in the developing world may benefit even more. In India, where the population is four times that of the U.S., and where half of all workers are in agriculture, the sensors, satellite imagery and advanced, AI-enhanced data analytics of IoT will make food cheaper and more plentiful. It will also help farmers leapfrog the pesticide and water-intensive legacy of the second industrial revolution. “This is truly going to help the small farmers come up the food chain, if you will,” says Melkote, “to more sustainable methods of farming.”
At the same time, connected technology will make home-grown food possible in even the smallest apartments. To satisfy the urge of urban gardeners and farm-to-table advocates, there’s already a movement to move agriculture indoors. “I’m looking at how to make growing food as local as possible,” says David Rose. “And by local, I mean taking the bookshelves in your home and turning them into a farm because”—in the age of e-books—“you don’t need as much space for books anymore.”
Rose is not alone. A Kickstarter campaign has already exceeded its $100,000 goal for SproutsIO, a soil-less personal produce platform that expects to start delivering micro-farms for home and office by early next year.
A new definition of home
All the other uses of IoT are dwarfed by its greatest challenge: to meet the needs of an increasingly crowded and vulnerable planet, which is a job that entails a major conceptual shift. Ultimately, IoT means connecting sensors on the world’s unthinking objects to each other, to the natural world and to ourselves—a network of synaptic connections in a single, planetary brain. That implies a more embracing conception of intelligent life itself, one that includes AI-driven robots and appliances and a vast data stream from common everyday objects.
As fast as the global population is projected to grow, the population of digitally connected manmade objects is projected to grow much faster. One estimate calls for IoT to connect almost 40 billion objects by the end of this decade and 80 billion by 2025—and to keep accelerating its reach into the indefinite future.
To some, that raises the dystopic, Matrix-like vision of a world in which algorithm-driven machines manage to outthink and overwhelm their human creators. But to fear that future, according to Melkote, is to underestimate the critical role of IoT’s designers. “The heart of the future lies in data,” he says. “But humans will have to figure out what decisions need to be made on the basis of it.”
On the other hand, he adds, that should not be altogether reassuring, since the decisions we make will be “a planetary issue.”