As inconceivable as it may seem, one of the most important technological innovations of the new century began with a simple modification to a vending machine. In 1982, students at Carnegie Mellon University installed micro switches in a Coke machine in order to detect how many bottles were left in each of the machine’s six columns. The sensors were linked to the Computer Science department’s main computer, and a program was written in order for users to check the status of the machine. This allowed students to check the machine’s stock, as well as its functionality. The modification even gave students the ability to check how long each bottle had been in the machine, enabling them to gauge for optimal beverage temperatures. While this was a relatively simple implementation of the technology, the students at Carnegie Mellon offered proof that offsite monitoring of machines was an achievable feat, paving the way for new innovations to come.
The above example is the first noted employment of technology related to the Internet of Things (IoT), a massive network of objects embedded with electronic sensors that relay information. The term originated in 1999, when Kevin Ashton, executive director of the tech research group Auto-ID, claimed that he used the phrase in the title of a presentation made to Procter & Gamble; Procter & Gamble later became a major funder of the organization. That same year, Auto-ID went on to assist in the development of Electronic Product Code (EPC), a huge step towards enabling the IoT. EPC was intended to replace Universal Product Code (UPC), an identification system using barcodes to track and distinguish trade items. EPC system uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), a revolutionary technology that has become boundless in its application to infrastructure, transportation, healthcare, and countless other industries. While UPC allowed for distinctions by manufacturer, Auto-ID’s new EPC system offered the ability to assign each item with a unique identifier. As such, EPC has served as an essential building block for the Internet of Things by providing a system for the unique addresses to objects in a given network.
The IoT operates by enabling machines to communicate with users and, perhaps more critically, <em>one another</em> in order to improve efficiency and automation. For instance, IoT devices employed in an urban infrastructure can talk to one another, coordinating energy, transit, and other systems for optimal performance and efficiency without the direct aid of people. Because of this, IoT technology is largely expected to usher in an era of dramatically increased automation. The enhancement of data gathering and, perhaps more importantly, data visualization is a key factor to unlocking this potential. The IoT has the ability to turn the entire world into an information system—moreover, a system in which said information is accessible and increasingly tangible. A 2010 report from McKinsey Quarterly noted that IoT connected sensors “can give decision makers a heightened awareness of real-time events, particularly when the sensors are used with advanced display or visualization technologies.” The ability to make sense of ever complex information streams will prove to be a game changer across numerous industries.
ABI Research, a market intelligence firm, predicts that, by the year 2020, more than 30 billion devices will be wirelessly connected to the Internet of Things. The potential impact of this expansion cannot be overstated. The IoT is predicted to have wide ranging implications across many fields and industries. Healthcare, for instance, will experience radical innovations, not the least of which will involve biophysical monitoring. For instance, devices connected to the IoT can enable the remote monitoring of specialized implants, such as pacemakers. Aside from the practical applications such monitoring will have for both home-healthcare and the fitness industry, the data made available by such technology is also invaluable to researchers. Healthcare is just one field that will see rapid transformation with the ascent of the IoT; others include transportation, media, and of course energy. While such predictions related to the IoT have been met with skepticism throughout the years, we may be on the brink of a substantial shift within the next decade—a shift that will find the IoT in near ubiquitous use. A recent questionnaire conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated as much; the study involved technology experts, analysts, and entrepreneurs. Participants were asked, “…will the Internet of Things have widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public by 2025?” A majority responded in the affirmative.
Of course, the major innovations brought about by the IoT also present complex ethical problems. With the potential for data gathering presented by the IoT, privacy is of paramount concern. A recent piece by Charith Perera & Co. concluded, “…existing technologies and regulations are not sufficient to support privacy guaranteed data management life cycle.” And, as with any major technological shift, security is a major concern, particularly with respect to potential vulnerabilities in IoT devices. A recent assessment from the National Institute of Standards and Technology stated that the manner in which the IoT operates essentially makes both public and private computers indefensible. In addition, while some IoT boosters espouse lofty gestures towards making the world a greener place, skeptics have argued that the increased use of interconnected devices will end up harming the environment—the reasoning being that IoT prevalence will drive the installation of sensors into everyday devices. So, because of increasing advances in technology, said devices will be discarded more frequently, leading to further waste. Furthermore, the lifetime of said devices is questionable. Standards and regulatory bodies are currently insufficient. As such, it’s increasingly difficult for consumers to gauge the true environmental impact of a product. The problem, again, is not the technology itself, but rather society’s distinct inability to keep up with the pace of technological progression.
From an ethical standpoint, concerns about the above mentioned issues are certainly valid and alarming. But there is an underlying problem behind all of these issues. Compared to the relatively rapid progression of technology, society as a whole has been slow to respond in many aspects of our socioeconomic systems, i.e. laws, regulatory bodies, standards, business models, political frameworks, etc. Humanity’s ability to adapt to changing environments and circumstances has always set us apart from other animals. It’s the reason we’ve been successful as a species. Furthermore, our ability to develop and use tools is irreconcilably connected to our ability to adapt. And now, paradoxically, these two fundamental aspects of our nature are at odds with one another.
Have the tools of humanity outpaced our ability to adapt to the new environments created by said tools? As of now, it’s unclear. But it does seem as though we are at a critical juncture. We can stumble backward into the 21st century, unready and perhaps unwilling to even think about changing. Or we can work to anticipate and address the potential ethical problems that will inevitably come with new advances. Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at the University of Oxford, comments on the matter with critical lucidity: “It’s up to us. Do not believe anybody who tells you that technology has its own forces, that you are powerless. It is not true—not true in the sense that it is our responsibility to make sure that the best that can happen with this technology is going to happen, and the worst is kept under control.” Floridi’s point is clear. New technology itself does not have an inherent moral value. As such, the development of IoT is not by itself good or bad; it’s what we do with the technology that matters. The need for a new kind of ethical vigilance is apparent. With each technological paradigm shift, we as a species must work to discern and diminish the potential downsides, all the while, working to propagate the best of what new technology can bring.
Since the IoT has become something of a sensation among business and tech circles, many an article have espoused both the great promise and great danger posed by the IoT. Real world headlines such as “The Internet of things is great until it blows up your house” and “Why the Internet of Things Heralds the Next Great Economic Disruption” are indeed attention grabbing, but do they reflect what is really significant about this great tech innovation? When we ask the question, as many news pieces have recently asked, “How will the Internet of Things make our lives better?” it is necessary to define the term “better” in concrete terms. Hyperbole runs rampant among these pieces, but one near ubiquitous theme is that the IoT has the potential to make our lives a lot easier from a practical standpoint. IoT connected refrigerators will be able to sense when we’re running short on items such as milk, and will subsequently add said items to our grocery lists. This may seem like a relatively mundane aspect of how the IoT can change lives; however, the underlying principle has wide-ranging applications.
What the IoT has the power to do is further eliminate our involvement in the everyday minutia of common tasks and problems. Moreover, the IoT enables us to make connections that were previously unheard of. Computers will be able to regulate traffic lights based on real-time information—e.g. congestion, weather conditions and accidents—making traffic patterns more efficient. This saves us both time, and potentially lives. Certainly, making roads safer has a concrete value, but what of saving time? Isn’t it what we do with this newly gained spare time that really matters? Because if the IoT only works towards making the public more complacent, that is a sharply dismal reflection of what we value. And ultimately, if our technology proves to be more than society can handle, it is purely reflective on our ethical integrity as a people.
What we hold dear is demonstrated candidly by how we use our devices. More than ever before, we have access to resources one could only dream of mere decades ago. The impetus for each stage in the history of people is, unequivocally, technological innovation. Along the way, technology has also fundamentally changed the way we experience the world. The relationship between humanity and technology is one of recursive development. We make the tech; the tech changes us. As we change, we develop new tech, which in turn changes us yet again—so on, and so forth. But do not mistake this change for progression, because it can go either way. New technology can be used for both great and horrible things. It is only with constant ethical vigilance that technology, such as that of the IoT, has the means to enrich the lives of everyone on the planet. With the guidance of ethical models that value—above all else—liberty, health, wellbeing, and environmental stability, the innovation brought about by massive technological shifts such as the rise of the IoT can serve to enhance our world. If such an ethical model guides its development, the IoT will completely alter the landscape of our world for the better. Yes, the IoT may usher in a new era of automation, but it can also usher in an unprecedented era of abundance and liberty. It is our responsibility to ensure that the innovations spurred by the IoT have positive consequences for the entirety of the human race, across class and creed. Where lives can be saved by this technology, where suffering can be minimized, we have a moral obligation to insure its safe implementation.