Mercator Perspectives

The “Internet of Things” Promises Unprecedented Change

Driving home late one recent night, I encountered a radio talk show whose host had heard that the U.S. Transportation Department wanted on-board computers to be compulsory in autos in the not-too-distant future. The host was working himself into a lather about the potential privacy implications of the government tracking you in your car, wholly unaware (until listeners phoned in to tell him) that virtually every car on the road today already has an on-board computer. We (and he) need to move on to more important questions: How much more will that computer be capable of in the not-so-distant future, who will have access to the data it captures, and what other devices will have comparable capabilities?

IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) and HTML5 are both being rolled out now, and will bring substantial change to the Internet as we know it:

The current “IPv4” architecture is beginning to run out of new IP addresses. IPv6 expands the supply of distinct addresses nearly infinitely, which will support the transformation of consumer and industrial devices ranging from tablets to automobiles to “smart buildings.” When we have enough more numbers, they can be assigned individually to a wide variety of appliances, equipment, buildings, etc. What the Europeans have begun to call the “Internet of Things” will enable commercialization of products such as the refrigerator that communicates your needs directly to your supermarket, or allows you to check your supply of milk remotely from a smartphone. It will also enable the Smart Grid (the two-way communicating power grid) to interact with such devices, leading to new privacy issues inside homes; the electric company will capture information about what appliances are running and when, and will be able to exercise some control over the timing of usage of those devices for purposes of managing peak demand.

In parallel, the rollout of HTML5 will expand the vocabulary of Internet programming. Many newer Internet functions such as video display, audio recording, and database integration are not supported natively in current HTML. These functions currently require browser “plug-ins” to be executed, but will be incorporated fully in HTML5 without the need for plug-ins. That promises not only the end of the “Flash wars” between Apple and Adobe, but also very much more functionality embedded in web-based interfaces for all kinds of devices. We have become accustomed to talking about “devices” in reference to smartphones, tablets, and computers, but increasingly the relevant devices will be aircraft, washing machines, dishwashers, automobiles, trucks, and more. How will they help themselves to solve human problems? Consider this description of the safety implications of “Connected Vehicles,” which really is from the U.S. Transportation Department:


“Connected vehicle safety applications are designed to … reduce or eliminate crashes through vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) data transmission that supports: driver advisories, driver warnings, and vehicle and/or infrastructure controls. These technologies may potentially address up to 82 percent of crash scenarios…”

A world of “smart devices” is no longer science fiction; the transformation has begun and will mature sooner than we can imagine. Cars will find parking spaces on their own, and will learn not to run into each other (or anything else) because they will have their own “social network” unencumbered by klutzy or distracted humans. I’ll never again run out of milk. My dishwasher will wait to run itself at “off-peak” rates. Who knows what other unimagined wonders will become commonplace?

What’s the cost? Our personal privacy is at stake, to be balanced by our need for progress. “Online data gathering” is already a subject of concern. We need only imagine how much more profound will be the risks when virtually every device we use has its own “online” address and its own datafile. And yet, how powerful are the potential gains, if we can actually prevent thousands of auto accidents and similar misfortunes, and greatly increase personal convenience to boot. In order to preserve our personal rights, while capturing the societal and individual benefits, data collection and aggregation must be regulated and controlled for anonymization, far more effectively than has been the case up to now in the United States.

The Internet of Things

Click here to read about connected vehicles

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