Thinking About Things That Think

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The Internet of Things is Upon Us!

You can’t escape the Internet, it’s everywhere. For years, the Internet has provided people increased access to information and greater potential to connect with each other. Recently, the Internet has started connecting our gadgets, appliances, and other “things” to make them smarter. This grand vision to ‘smartify’ everything is called the “Internet of Things” and describes a world where sensors will be embedded in the environment in a way that integrates man and machine. These connected devices will create a data-driven reality beyond most people’s imagination. In short, this evolution of technology is poised to change the way we interact with the world for decades to come.

The “Internet of Things” was proclaimed “all the rage at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show”1, but this recent hype comes fifteen years after the phrase was first coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999, as part of a presentation made about using radio frequency identification to allow computers to gather information. Ashton declared that we can “observe, identify, and understand the world without the limitations of human entered data.” It has taken a long time to gain traction, but I will go on record stating I like where this idea is going. My phone is smart, I own two smart TVs, and I wear a smart fashion accessory that tracks my steps, calories, and daily sleep patterns. I am also excited about the wireless dog collar, and I can’t wait for the Crock-Pot that with one swift command from my Smartphone will consistently ensure my dinner is ready when I arrive home. So, given my excitement, you can imagine my surprise to discover that everybody isn’t as excited as me about the next generation of smart things. In fact, according to a recent Forrester Research poll, only 28% of Americans are interested in controlling their appliances with their Smartphone while 53% don’t care.

SMART Things: Scary Smart or Just Scary?

The list of internet-enabled devices already on the market or promised to arrive this year includes home audio, televisions, light bulbs, refrigerators, thermostats, door locks, cars, fashion accessories, and ‘wearables’, even connected socks! There’s a smart basketball and a smart tennis racket. Believe it or not, there’s even a smart toothbrush that records your brushing activity in order to motivate or shame you into better dental hygiene. The possibilities are endless. In fact, “there are more than 10 billion wirelessly connected devices in the market today; with over 30 billion devices expected by 2020.”

Looking beyond the individual consumer and American household, the health care sector is already adopting the “Internet of Things.” Connected devices or embedded sensors that offer mobile monitoring and health management capabilities are being used to reduce costs and improve health outcomes by increasing the availability and quality of care. These devices help individuals make smarter decisions about their health. On a more global scale, the “Internet of Things” can also be leveraged to help us be smarter about how we consume resources (including water and electricity) to address even broader health and wellness challenges.

As I ponder these possibilities and the promising benefits associated with the “Internet of Things,” it’s still hard to imagine why anyone is hesitant to get on board. I admit that having your house or car use data to predict your next move could take the spontaneity out of being human. On the other hand, an automated environment should free up some brain space and time. This time, in turn, may help us focus on tasks more important than turning devices on and off or making a grocery list. But, something about all of these smart devices does strike me as a little disturbing. The idea that one day my scale may detect that I’m overweight and notify my refrigerator to prevent me from sneaking in for late night snacks certainly raises an eyebrow. Or even worse, there is already at least one example of smart gadgets (including a refrigerator) being hijacked by hackers and staging a malicious attack that generated over 750,000 “malicious email communications” over two weeks during the Christmas and New Year holidays!

Beyond the concerns noted about security, some hesitation is far more practical. I wonder if my refrigerator will remember that I need milk if the power goes out. If all of these devices are competing for air time, won’t my Wi-Fi slow down? And, we’ll need to ensure that the servers that manage our smart devices are secure and risk free. The biggest risk of all may be the ever dissolving illusion of privacy, and smart devices will certainly push the limit. In sum, no matter how smart our gadgets become they won’t work well if we don’t monitor and manage them. So, while I am intrigued by this movement, I’m not trading in my toothbrush yet.

Written by Laura Sliwinski, PhD, MHA
Dr. Sliwinski is Associate Dean of the College of Health, Human Services, and Science at Ashford University blog.

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