Aug/Sept 2015

With regards to the IoT (Internet of Things), we are entering a critical period where major and disruptive changes in society will soon be upon us. One only has to look back at the development of the “Internet of People” to see how radically and rapidly it has changed society, access to information, and disrupted business models.

It is now a good time to examine where this technology is going and ask some serious questions as to how the IoT may benefit, but also adversely affect society.

In the popular media, any new technology tends to be treated with much enthusiasm, as if all new innovation is a good thing and should be pursued without restraint or regulation. If we examine the recent history of the Internet, it is clear it has brought many benefits to us all, and has become an indispensable tool used by millions of people on a daily basis.

On the other hand, we must not overlook the disruptive effect it has had on society and businesses all over the globe:

  • Outsourcing. Many industries have been decimated through replacement by outsourced online services. Travel agencies, print media, postal service, the music and movie business, broadcast TV, IT services, call centers, and bank tellers are all services that have been severely impacted by the Internet. Many will disappear entirely.
  • Telecommunications has become a commodity service, which is virtually free. Anyone or anything with an Internet connection can now communicate with each other for practically nothing. This in itself is a good thing. With the high-bandwidth 4G revolution, however, low-cost ubiquitous video streaming may very well lead to a surveillance state where all our actions are monitored and recorded in the name of security. To a large extent, this has already happened in many parts of the world.
  • Virtually free access to information and online media has radically changed the publishing business, exponentially increasing quantity of information while often diluting the quality. As subscription models fail, more and more online media and news sources have turned to advertising to fund their operations, effectively turning the free press into a bazaar where broadcast content is sold to the highest bidder. Although access to terabytes of information is now easily accessed from anywhere, what information is correct is becoming harder to assess. Truth is becoming harder to find.

The Internet has caused seismic shifts in the way we communicate, work, consume information, protect, and entertain ourselves. It has also made digital media freely accessible, often at no cost. It can be argued that although we enjoy the fruits of the Internet, it has created a society where jobs are increasingly outsourced to low-cost countries with dubious human rights and environmental policies. Valuable content is easily pirated thereby depriving the creators of a living, which makes information harder to trust due to the sheer unfiltered volume of it.

The Internet of Things is following a similar path as the Internet of People, albeit delayed by about 10 years. Looking at the IoT and where it seems to have the biggest impact, we should weigh the advantages with the social ramifications it might have.

There are clearly areas where IoT applications are improving life for a vast number of people. There are also areas where entire industries and livelihoods will be disrupted or eliminated. Technology seems to be an unstoppable force, and the Internet a powerful force that propagates it, regardless of geographical or political boundaries.

There are many positive applications of the IoT:

  • Smart power grid: Here is an area where the IoT is helping us wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Although still relatively cheap today, there is a finite supply of oil. At some point, society will have to transition to renewable energy be it solar, wind, hydro, or ocean currents. All these sources are variable, unpredictable, and geographically distributed, meaning information exchange to match supply with demand is crucial to making them financially viable.
  • e-Learning: To offset the replacement of low-skilled jobs by connected machines, humans need to move up the knowledge ladder to prepare for a future where robots do most of the manual labor. The IoT is a perfect vehicle for delivering education and training to millions of people in remote locations. This must be driven by the public sector, as it will be inherently a not-for-profit endeavor if it is to reach the masses, especially in developing countries.
  • Building automation: Similar to the smart grid, intelligent buildings that optimize energy usage, protect people from fire, and intrusion, etc., is a very positive application of the IoT.
  • Healthcare is a sector where the IoT is already making a very useful contribution to society. With populations aging around the world, the ability to monitor and protect people in their homes lowers costs and increases quality of life.

And here are some disruptive ones:

  • Factory automation: As connected machines are becoming smarter and smarter, there may soon be no manufacturing or agricultural process left that requires a human hand. The result will be millions of people out of work. Jobs that were originally outsourced from rich countries to developing countries, decimating the middle class, would then be eliminated altogether. From a profit standpoint, this is a good thing. From a societal standpoint, it could be devastating.
  • Driverless vehicles: This rapidly developing technology promises a long list of benefits, including lower costs and increased safety and security. But what is inherent in the term “driverless” makes the result clear: for every driverless truck, taxi, tram, or train there is one human being who is no longer required.
  • Loss of privacy: Hand-in-hand with the IoT is the growing trend of storing data in the “cloud.” Everything from our family photos to personal financial information exists “somewhere” on remote servers. The recent headlines about mass security breaches where personal and credit card information has been stolen from these systems is just a small taste of what could happen in the near future.

Each year we methodically hand over information, tasks, and trust to connected machines. With no overseeing body to ensure that all people benefit from this trend, the overriding authority defaults to the few who stand to profit the most.

Here in Europe, governments are still very much involved in serving the needs of society. In many countries, including all of Scandinavia and the U.K., education and healthcare are largely funded by the government. Powerful trade unions and company sponsored pensions still exist. To most Americans this may be incomprehensible, but it was not long ago when unions were thriving and company pensions were alive and well in the U.S.

Although scoffed at by right-leaning parties in the U.S., let us not forget that many of these generous social benefits exist in European countries that are now consistently rated as having the highest quality of life in the world.

There is a clear argument for government involvement in the deployment and regulation of the IoT. With the incredible disparity of wealth distribution in the world today, and the IoT a powerful way to control that distribution, both the public and private sectors need to be involved in the evolution of the IoT to make sure there is a fair balance between man and machine.


Currently based in Switzerland, Carl Fenger has more than 25 years of international experience authoring numerous articles in electronics, software, and M2M technologies. He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of California. He can be reached at carl.fenger@outlook.com

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