Imagine a world where a refrigerator assesses its own contents, creates a customized shopping list, and sends it to your smartphone. Your phone takes this information and compiles coupons and pins recipes that coordinate items from your grocery list. Your car’s navigation system plots the quickest route to the necessary stores on your way home from work. Apps turn on your oven, crockpot, or rice maker remotely, warming in preparation for dinner. Your family is welcomed home by the smell of a home-cooked meal and the convenience of a well-stocked arsenal of perishables for the weekend. All this seamless integration frees you to spend the evening enjoying quality time together instead of running errands and checking off items on a massive to-do list. Sound idyllically futuristic? Maybe. But the reality of interconnected devices that’ll make this dream life attainable is already here.

It’s called the Internet of Things (IoT) and experts say it’s poised to become the next information revolution. This web of sensors and devices operate using Wi-Fi capabilities and share a vast treasure trove of data. The goal of this kind of universal connectivity is to provide the average consumer with unparalleled technological integration that will dramatically reshape everyday life. In 2013, nearly half of the products at the Consumer Electronics Show integrated Wi-Fi. By 2020, the NCTA (National Cable and Telecommunications Association) estimates nearly 50 million devices will be connected to the Internet of Things, able to synch data and provide insights across a myriad of applications in real time.

“The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing agree that the expanding networking of everything and everyone—the growth of the Internet of Things and embedded and wearable devices—will have widespread and beneficial effects by 2025. They say the opportunities and challenges resulting from amplified connectivity will influence nearly everything, nearly everyone, nearly everywhere.” Janna Anderson, Pew Research Center

A convergence of innovation is making the expansion of the Internet of Things inevitable. As broadband and fiber spread into more pockets of the country, faster speeds have become increasingly affordable. The capabilities of cloud computing, advances in smartphone technology, and rapidly growing numbers of Wi-Fi enabled devices have merged to create the possibility of a programmable world.

Woman puts her finger on an icon of a house shown on the touch screen of a digital tablet. The tablet runs a smart home app. Concept of controlling wireless devices at home, also know as internet of things.

Applications of the IoT

What does the Internet of Things mean for you and your connected household? Let’s take a look at the future application of the Internet of Things.

  • Health: This is where the Internet of Things is already having an impact. From monitoring aging retirees to coordinating hospital resources, a network of sensors is keeping one step ahead of potential problems and saving lives. You know that Fitbit that supports your endless fascination with calories burned and communicates with the bathroom scale? Part and parcel of the Internet of Things.
  • Home: Our increasingly connected homes will be like a gigantic nervous system, pulsing and breathing through sensors that coordinate appliances and track temperature. Sprinkler systems that respond to forecasted weather conditions, thermostats that adjust temperature before you arrive home from work, and window shades that can position themselves according to the waning sunlight are all possible through the ubiquitous interconnectivity of a myriad of sensors inexpensively embedded in everyday devices.
  • Communities: A vast, public grid coordinated and controlled by data-driven automation could dramatically decrease waste and cost, providing significant advantages to public health and safety. Traffic lights that adjust to changing conditions, energy grids that transfer power automatically  according to the weather, and infrastructure that monitors itself for safety concerns are ways a community could seamlessly incorporate the Internet of Things.
  • Manufacturing & Marketing: The potential of a data-driven society able to integrate every piece of an enormously complex, international supply chain or a retail industry that can target consumers with specific products selected by behavioral patterns, location and real-time feedback is already transforming the manufacturing and marketing sectors. Billboards that analyze passing consumers, smart shelves that alert stores to restock product, and grocery carts that tally the cost of items and cross them off smartphone shopping lists are realities that lurk just around the corner.
  • Environment: Sensors that monitor water pressure and determine leaks, the ability to tailor farming methods with ongoing feedback about nutrients in the soil, and the monitoring of pollutants in the air are ways in which the Internet of Things is already being utilized to aid in conservation.

“When we combine the billions of smart devices into the final IoT (Internet of Things), we should expect to be surprised by the final form all those interactions take, and by the complexity of the thing we create.  Those things can and will work together, and how they behave will be defined by the identities we give them today.”

Geoff Webb, Wired

Impact of the IoT

As we move through a world that becomes increasingly connected, there are indications that we’ve underestimated the enormous impact the Internet of Things will have. In the same manner that modern computing has revolutionized our daily lives, a network of sensors embedded in every device and on every person will create a colossal field of data. This gargantuan terrain of specific information about every behavior and interaction has a potential that is just as unfathomable to us as the infinite distances of outer space. Let’s take a peek at the ways in which our ability to measure, analyze, and apply big data will have significant impact on our daily lives.

Close up of a father using digital tablet

  • Behavior Analysis: As we compile information about people and their interactions with products, devices, the environment, and each other, we’ll be able to design better models to predict behavior. Not only can this lead to more effective marketing techniques, but it can also transform how we approach health and public safety.
  • Astute Predictions: The more data at our disposal, the greater our ability to decipher the complex interactions that cause things like weather, accidents, and environmental change. The Internet of Things enables us to evolve our current predictive attempts into more evolved and agile tools that will take into account a larger array of factors.
  • Better decisions: Now that connected devices have given us the data, we’ll be able to piece together more of the knowable world and make better decisions. It’ll drive how doctors assess their patients, how industries evaluate risk, and what we do on a day-to-day basis to ensure our safety, improved health, and quality of life.
  • Automated Efficiency: Ubiquitous connectivity and a network of sensors allows industries to evolve processes that maximize efficiency. This is especially true of industries that involve manufacturing or global transportation of products. Without an Internet of Things and the ability to mine extensive amounts of data, we wouldn’t have the intuitive, omnipresent entity that is Amazon.
  • Conservative Consumption: A data-driven landscape gives us the ability to minimize waste and give our full attention to tactics that will ensure better conservation of natural resources like water, energy, and land. The Internet of Things has the capacity to turn our cities into connected organisms that conserve, reroute, and expand resources according to a delicate balance of need and preservation.
  • Unparalleled Performance: The more our technology enables us to automate processes both large and small, simple and complex, the more we can hone into performance gains in every sector of public and private life. Automated processes ideally free humans to do more of what matters.

“If policy makers and businesses get it right, linking the physical and digital worlds could generate up to $11.1 trillion a year in economic value by 2025.”

McKinsley Global Institute, Report June 2015

Concerns about the IoT

We’ve painted a pretty lovely picture, where the world hums and spins and acts according to your every whim without more than a whisper of intent from you. Doesn’t this miracle of efficiency and convenience come at a cost? Absolutely. And some even question whether the process of increased automation will actually add value to our lives or whether it will create needless complexity.

“It’s time to admit that the Internet of Things is really just the colonization of formerly non-computational devices for no other reason than to bring them into the fold of computation.”

Ian Bogost, The Atlantic

So what are the concerns surrounding the Internet of Things? Let’s describe the challenges all this increased connectivity brings and examples of what the concern might look like in the programmable world we are poised to enter.

  • Privacy: Sure, we’re creating lots of data. But where does all this information go and who uses it? This is a primary concern that gets at the heart of why some of this innovation feels like an invasion of privacy. A Fitbit and the connected smart scale provide users with graphs and charts of changing body mass, logging subtle shifts in health associated with diet and exercise. There are several parties who might be interested in analyzing these trends. Doctors would want access to this data to diagnose issues and help address changes patients could make to increase longevity. Insurance companies would also be interested in using that data to assess risk more accurately and transfer the burden of cost for some health conditions back onto patients and employers. For every advantage gained in analyzing data, there is a correlating instance in which it might be exploited and ultimately lead to an invasion of privacy.
  • Security: Along with the responsibility of mountains of data comes the struggle of how to keep it secure from cybercrime. While the focus has been on innovation, many products have failed to consider how to keep consumers safe from the risk of exposed connections that leave data vulnerable. There have been several highly publicized instances where hackers have revealed the risks of Wi-Fi baby monitors, broadcasting creepy messages from the safety of anonymity halfway around the world. As the connectivity of devices becomes more prevalent, we’ll need to consider how much risk we’re prepared to accept in exchange for convenience and efficiency.
  • Data: The problem with data is two-fold. While cloud computing has given us a powerful weapon that expands our ability to store and access information, we’ll need even more capable tools to handle the onslaught of data that’s coming our way in the next decade. Secondly, a network of sensors that provides second-by-second feedback is of no use if we don’t have the tools to analyze and put that feedback to work. We’ll need to design more robust tools to take advantage of the barrage of intelligence the Internet of Things will bring to our collective fingertips.
  • Power: An army of sensors needs to be powered by something. And we’ll want the technical capabilities to support the computing muscle this information revolution will require. While some solutions loom on the horizon, we’ve yet to approach anything that has the capability to definitively power the vast electronic universe that is the Internet of Things.

Home energy smart meter on the wall of a modern home. The smart meter shows the current electrical energy and gas consumption for the household. All details of energy consumption are sent directly to the energy company via the cloud. This technology eliminates the need for the customer to provide meter readings and provides an up to date accurate bill. (graphics on meter display have been altered)

The Internet of Things & You

We began this exploration of the IoT with a simple question: What does the impending information revolution mean for you? We’ve discussed the applications and impact of this ever-expanding network of sensors and data-driven, Wi-Fi capable devices. And we laid out the obvious concerns that such an explosion of development would bring forth issues like privacy, security, data storage and analysis, and power. What can you do to better position yourself for the growing interconnectivity of our everyday lives? Here are three things to consider as you prepare for the next step in the evolution of the Internet of Things.

  • Bandwidth: On a larger scale, the technology industry will need to move to an approach that will accommodate all the Wi-Fi devices that are anticipated to join the market in the next few years. From a household perspective, you’ll need a reliable, highly capable router than can handle the increasing demand for Wi-Fi from a multitude of appliances and devices that will crowd your home. And you’ll need to understand how to create and secure a network that will allow all those clever things to communicate with one another without exposing data publicly.
  • Storage: Start taking advantage of the cloud now and understand how to use it safely. Choose Internet providers that give you plenty of storage space and the capacity to use much more than you can currently imagine you’ll need. Many devices are moving to adapt to this new world by including the cloud behind their connected devices as an invisible, seamless component of functionality. But several providers like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft can see the future need for a vast, personal cloud pulsing just beyond our current use and they’ve poised themselves to meet that demand.
  • Power: Vroom, vroom. Start looking at alternatives now and think about how you can power your devices without going over your budget. While there are some promising developments on the front to make the Internet of Things run battery free and completely wireless, that future isn’t here yet. Until it is, you’re going to need more batteries than a doomsday prepper. Start hoarding.
  • Speed: Last but certainly not least, we need to broach the subject of speed. What kind of connection do you need to support a fully integrated household with universal connectivity? Fast. Broadband or fiber connections will almost certainly be a necessity moving forward to enable the average household to make the Internet of Things work for them. It’s not so much about the number of devices sharing your connection. It’s actually about the power to process and upload data to the cloud while simultaneously downloading updates for your connected devices. You’ll want to focus on providers that can bring you 50 mbps or more in the coming decade as the Internet of Things really begins to take off. Want to test your current speed? Use our tool to determine the speed you need.

It’s a brave, new, connected world, friends. One that moves at the speed of now powered by smart devices and the universal connectivity that will transform our lives. The Internet of Things is the future and it’s already here, quietly turning your thermostat up when you walk in the door and planning your dinner calorie count according to how many steps you took today. It has the potential to be a powerful, incredible force for change as long as we pave the way for an integration that enriches our lives and protects our privacy.

Want to learn more about the Internet of Things? These Ted talks will steer you in the right direction.