The Internet of Things in the Next Internet

Curator's Note

From watches that monitor blood pressure to refrigerators that prompt you to buy more milk, from assembly lines “manned” by robots to drones that deliver what robots produce, the Internet of Things (IOT) promises a profound impact on individuals and society. The IOT refers to a system that installs scanning and processing devices into everyday objects (e.g. watches) and production tools (robotic arms), and connects them in networks that gather and use data on their performance. We refer to the admittedly awkward term the Internet of Things because, unlike the Internet we know, which links people, the IOT primarily connects objects. The sensors in a refrigerator form a network of things that report on what’s inside and how it is used. The IOT is made possible by advances in the ability to miniaturize scanning devices and provide them with sufficient processing power to monitor activity, analyze usage, and deliver results over electronic networks. Companies have been quick to take advantage of their leading positions in the digital world to rush into the IOT. Prime examples include Google’s driverless car, the Apple Watch, and Amazon’s embrace of robotics in its warehouses to speed the work of order fulfillment. Amazon is also preparing to use drones for deliveries, and is developing entirely new forms of packaging containing pushbuttons that automate ordering refills. The IOT has also given new life to an old industrial firm, General Electric, which was remade in the 1990s by shifting from manufacturing to finance. GE has now all but abandoned the increasingly regulated world of banking only to emerge as a dominant player producing devices essential to the IOT and making use of them in its own industrial processes. Along with the benefits to corporations, the IOT holds out great promise for the military, because it greatly strengthens opportunities to automate warfare through robotics and drone weaponry, in addition to enhancing overall management of troops. The IOT raises significant policy issues including: 1. the concentration of power among a handful of US giants strengthened by their close relationship to the military; 2. the environmental consequences of the IOT’s massive energy requirements, particularly as IOT systems are linked to data centers; 3. security risks from hacking, system breakdowns, commercial and government surveillance; 4. threats to jobs, including knowledge work, as robotic and analytic systems take over more human labor.

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