Pew report on Internet of Things: the good, the bad, the ugly

In case you haven’t heard, the Internet of Things is supposed to be huge. And now that Pew Research has a new report out about it, well… just brace yourself.

As the Merc’s Steve Johnson wrote at the beginning of the year, Bay Area companies are poised to see quite a windfall from the increasing network connectivity of everything from coffeemakers to pacemakers. In Silicon Valley, Cisco is gearing up for it; Intel and other chip makers are salivating at the opportunities; other tech companies such as Oracle are also looking to cash in.

And there’s no shortage of optimism about the Internet of Things’ broader effect. “This will be potentially the biggest business opportunity in the history of people,” said Janusz Bryzek, a vice president at San Jose-based Fairchild Semiconductor,” according to Johnson’s article.

There’s plenty more where that came from. The Internet of Things is one hot topic. Here are highlights from a report published today by Pew, which is asking experts to weigh in on certain Internet-related topics on the year of the World Wide Web’s 25th anniversary. (See also our previous post on what experts said about the future of the Internet and technology.)

Besides convenience, what is the benefit of smart thermostats and refrigerators and paper-towel dispensers? Minimizing waste. JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for, told Pew:

‘Inventory’ will be reduced, as will the waste associated with the decay that is an intrinsic part of inventory. This will affect the food you buy and cook and eat; the fuel you use to power yourself, your devices, and your vehicles; the time you take to do things.

Also in the pros column, improved health. Think way beyond today’s health-tracking wristbands. David-Michel Davies, executive director of the Webby Awards and co-Founder of Internet Week, points out the health advantages, although he does say living longer could eventually lead to diseases we haven’t even dreamed of:

[When] a powerful biometric monitoring program that keeps track of your vital signs every second of the day and is accessible to you, your personal medical community and sophisticated computational power and software that can not only help you view the information and understand it, but also compare it to vast sets of other data so that it becomes not just an indicator of health or sickness, but even predictive — we will live much, much longer.

But of course, there are the naysayers. The pessimists. Or simply the concerned.

First, is it really a big deal? From Bill St. Arnaud, a self-employed green Internet consultant:

The Internet of Things has been in the red zone of the hypometer for over a decade now. Yes, there will be many niche applications, but it will not be the next big thing, as many pundits predict. If the Internet of Things had any true validity, you would think you would start to see evidence of its presence on early adopter Internet networks.

There are the inevitable privacy questions. From Nick Wreden of the University of Technology Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur:

There will be absolutely no privacy, not even in the jungle, away from civilization. I don’t like this, but people have shown over and over again that they are willing to trade away their souls for a “$1 off” coupon.

Also, security issues. From Jeremy Epstein, a senior computer scientist at SRI International:

Go in a store and try on a shirt; if you wear it out of the store it gets automatically detected and charged to your account, having been implicitly purchased. Of course, there will be fraud, as some people will figure out how to get out of a store without the detection.

When the “things” are doing much of the thinking, will our minds grow lax? From Alex Halavais, an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at Arizona State University:

At a personal level, this will vastly change how we tackle problems and remember things. Just as today we no longer remember telephone numbers, in the coming years, we will find it harder to place other sorts of information that are more easily stored and transmitted via sensor networks.

And along the same lines, from Aaron Balick, a Ph.D., psychotherapist, and author of “The Psychodynamics of Social Networking”:

We may begin to lose sight of our own desires or our own wills, like many of these drivers who we hear about who, because their GPS told them to, end up in the most unlikely places in the face of all sorts of real-world, contrary evidence. What will happen to our own senses of intuition, let alone our capacity to venture into the unknown, learn new things, and our ability to be still and quiet without being in constant relationship to one device or another.

Illustration from Charlotte Observer/MCT archives


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  • Rodney Hoffman

    I got to thinking about this scenario for fighting graffiti:

    Spray paint cans won’t operate on any surface if you don’t have the owner’s permission.

    If some young punk somehow manages to start to tag some graffiti, his identity is captured, and he hears, by name, that he is being fined.

    On second offense, not only is the fine multiplied, but a swarm of paint drones tag swatches of his hair, his body, his clothes, his bag, and his ride.


    Good? Bad?