Society is now created for technological, rather than human requirements. And that’s where tragedy begins.
C.V. Gheorgiu, The Twenty-Fifth Hour, 1950
I first heard about what would later be called the Internet of Things in 1991 from Michael Hawley, who happened to be providing support for my NeXT computer. Hawley was then a graduate student at MIT and favorite of Nick Negroponte. (Hawley, who had also worked at NeXT, pointed out that having him do my tech support was tantamount to having Steve Jobs on deck). He later became a professor in the MIT Media Lab
In addition to showing me the coolness of networks (like accessing files on remote computers, which was bleeding edge back then), he was also keen about discussing digital libraries and how his belt buckle would be able to talk to his refrigerator and why that would be useful. I kept quiet about my reservations about my objects having private conversations about me. In 1999, Hawley co-founded Things That Think, “a groundbreaking research program that explores the limitless ways digital media will infuse everyday objects.” The Internet of Things program draws much of its inspiration from the Things That Think initiative.
The problem with the idea of having even more devices than your smartphone and tablet gathering information for your convenience, of course, is the many ways all that data can be used against you. Matt Stoller wrote about this issue at Naked Capitalism well before the Snowden revelations raised public concern about the extent and ramifications of official and private sector data collection. From a June 2012 post:
The question of civil liberties versus privacy carries with it an entire set of tired arguments and predictable political posturing. The debate, however, is changing radically, because the capabilities to invade and control privacy have become extremely granular, and the profit motive has now changed the traditional actor in surveillance from the state to the private corporation.
Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported on new facial recognition technology to be used by police, in which a cop can use an iPhone to snap a photo of someone and cross-check that against a criminal database. Developed to deal with insurgents in foreign wars, this technology applied domestic is predictably making civil liberties groups queasy. But there’s a new wrinkle – the company that makes this technology says that “it will be sold only to law-enforcement agencies, although it is considering building applications for the health-care and financial industries.”
Health care and financial industries. That is interesting.
Meanwhile, in Houston, two school districts are requiring students to wear electronic tagging badges formerly used on cattle. The badges “improve security and increase attendance rates, a figure that’s important because some school funding is tied to attendance.” Students are often attending a different school, while marked absent, and these devices allow funding models to more accurately flow funds. These devices impose a novel degree of surveillance on young adults, observing where they go, with whom they spend time, for budgetary reasons.
Profit-driven surveillance does not starts and stop with young adults. It is, in fact, becoming pervasive. The main theme of a recent IBM consulting document on the future of the insurance industry is how much more money an insurance company can make if it tracks and tags its customers. This is particularly true for auto insurance companies, some of whom like Allstate and Progressive are experimenting on new technologies. For instance, IBM suggests that “A “pay-as-you-live” product would trade some location and time-of-day privacy data for lower insurance bills overall.”
IBM is recommending these companies stick a sensor in your car, measure where you go and when, your speed, acceleration and deceleration, etc. The progression over time could be to withdraw traditional insurance products, so that you won’t be able to get an insurance product without sensors attached. As this presentation offers, “The aforementioned rising tide of technology also empowers insurance underwriters to bring their products closer to realtime interaction via sensor networks and enlightened privacy regulations.”
As Michael Lewis has noted in articles and books on Wall Street and sports, you can slice and dice a mortgage into its component interest rate segment and principal. You can build a baseball team based on aggregating and disaggregating statistics. This kind of analysis is relatively new, a reconstruction of the world based on atomistic level quantitative attributes. For instance, you can track geographic areas based on cell phone relationships rather than borders. Financial engineers believe they can pretty much put a price on anything (whether those prices are any good over time is another matter). So what is your freedom worth? You need air, water, food, and relationships to survive. You want to go shopping, to the movies, to see friends. You have kids, romantics attachments, familial obligations. You like being able to travel, to explore, to watch TV. You need medical care. What are each of these worth? It’s a question that analysts are thinking about.
Wolf Richter gives us an update on the progress, if you can call it that, of the Internet of Things and what it really means for citizens, as opposed to vendors. From Wolf Street:
The “Internet of Things” is the next Big Thing. A universe of devices connected to data centers: your fridge, toaster, alarm clock, garage-door opener, pickup truck, self-driving car, thermostat, “intelligent toilet,” and other doodads.
They’re equipped with a computer chip, other hardware, sensors, and software that can pick up all sorts of data and transmit it via Wi-Fi, cellular, Bluetooth, ZigBee, RFID, and other wireless technologies to hub devices, such as smartphones or PCs, which then pass it on via the Internet to a trusty data center where the data will be used and monetized by one or more corporations. And as we now know, various government agencies can get access to this data in a snap.
You’ll be able to close your garage door with your smartphone, check how many times your kids opened the fridge and what they took out, and you’ll be able to chart it. In turn, your fridge and your pantry will put your grocery list together, transmit it to your smartphone while you’re shopping, or directly to the company that delivers your groceries. Your car remains in constant contact with a data center, and if it stalls on the highway, the data stream it sends back notifies the data center, and help is on the way. If you’re speeding, it might send the data directly to the proper law enforcement agency so that when you get home, you already have the speeding ticket in the email. Your thermostat senses what’s going on in your home, learns the details, the comings and goings, if anyone is at home, and who, and it also adjusts the temperature.
OK, Got It. This is for Your Own Benefit.
Google is at the forefront. It acquired Nest, whose thermostat learns the details of your home and its occupants. It invented Google Glass. It is experimenting with self-driving cars. The possibilities are endless. And based on Google Glass, work is being done to link factory workers to the Internet of Things to make them more efficient. As Automotive News breathlessly reported:
New factory technology is in the pipeline that will turn workers’ clothing into data-emitting devices for plant management. The benefit? Engineers will be able to constantly monitor the air temperature, humidity, and working conditions of a factory process, and track employee motions for ergonomics research and safety concerns.
Internet-connected wearable devices will transmit data automatically, which allows the factory’s computer system to manage and adjust, for example, tooling and equipment on the fly without human intervention, explained Jason Prater, VP of development at Plex Systems, whose Manufacturing Cloud, according to its website, runs the factory operations of “nearly 400 companies.”
Prater was speaking at the 2014 Management Briefing Seminars on Monday. Plex, in collaboration with an automotive metal-stamping supplier, is developing a system centered on Google Glass that workers would wear on the job. These devices would transmit a plethora of data, Prater said, including workers’ movements to maximize assembly-line efficiency and such things as body temperature to monitor their health.
Nothing Will Remain Unexamined.
It’s big business. How big? ABI Research estimates that over 30 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things by 2020; Gartner puts the number at 26 billion – not including 7.3 billion PCs, tablets, and smartphones.
That’s a lot of internet-connected things, considering that there are “only” a little over 7 billion people on this planet, including those who recalcitrantly remain beyond the reach of the Internet of Things, or even electricity.
Component costs will drop to less than $1 per device, Gartner predicts, which “opens up the possibility of connecting just about anything, from the very simple to the very complex, to offer remote control, monitoring, and sensing.”
As the Internet of Things spreads across every facet of your work, home, and private life, Gartner expects “the variety of devices offered to explode.” It forecasts that the “economic value-add” will reach $1.9 trillion in 2020. It expects the leaders to be manufacturing, healthcare – maybe you won’t even have to bother going to the doctor anymore – and insurance.
These devices still have novelty status. So an uproar ensued when Nest announced that it would share with Google, its new owner, as well as with third-party services the user data its thermostats have collected, after having promised up and down not to share the data. But as more of these devices enter our lives, such data-sharing will be accepted as the norm, similar to the acceptance of data-sharing by smartphones.
“We take your privacy seriously,” Nest says in its Privacy Statement before laying out what information it collects, “including Personally Identifiable Information (i.e., data that can be reasonably linked to a specific individual or household)….” And it will share this information, very reassuringly, with third parties “only when we think they will provide you with a welcome additional service.”
These Hapless Factory Workers are Trailblazers.
“The next wave is wearable technology, like Google Glass, smart watches, and smart vests,” Prater of Plex systems explained. The advantage of these devices is that they “will allow you to continue using your hands without having to input or look for data.” The data will be sent to the factory’s computer where every movement and drop of sweat will be recorded and analyzed. In Gartner’s words: monitoring, sensing, and remote control of people.
“Today, decisions are made instantaneously,” Prater said. “We can’t wait to hear about things after the fact.” And then the industry insider too had an intriguing forecast: “Turning people into essentially walking sensors is going to be the future.”
And how secure are these devices that make you part of the Internet of Things? You don’t need to break a code; you don’t need to capture a server. “Hardcore hackers wouldn’t even bother with it,” said one of the hackers. “They’d find access too easy.” Read…. Google Glass Hacked, Can Record Everything You Stare At