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Emerging Technology (Enhancing, Engaging, Connecting)

The Internet of Things

We (will very soon) all belong to this new community.

The Internet of things may sound like some highly theoretical concept or a plot for a science fiction thriller, but in fact it is real, becoming ubiquitous, and evolving rapidly. We are all increasingly members of this new, interconnected “community.” This means that our institutions and our constituents are also members. The Internet of Things (abbreviated “IoT”) is everything and everyone that is connected by a common technological fabric. That sounds like today’s Internet and Web through which we communicate with our personal computers, smartphones and tablets. But it’s actually larger and more profound.

The IoT has been called the next evolutionary stage of the Internet, but it is actually a culmination and convergence of a number of evolutionary lines, including sensors, microprocessors, wireless technology, big data and the Internet. The result is a broad range of devices that are able to sense and interact with their environment, and share information with one another — and with data collectors anywhere on the Internet.

Adaptive Systems

Industry analyst Gartner, Inc., defines the IoT as “the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.” A critical difference is that the Things interact with one another and with central systems without human interaction. While much of this is preprogrammed, these networks are also becoming more adaptive through learning. In reality, they are developing their own forms of coordinated response, akin to pseudo-intelligence.

One reason the IoT is possible is the declining cost of embedding sensors and multiprocessors with communications capabilities in nearly everything. Gartner predicts that by 2020, component costs will have reached a point that connectivity will become a standard feature, with costs for embedded devices as low as $1. As they note, “This opens up the possibility of connecting just about anything.” Gartner notes the number of connected devices will grow in a staggering way, from 900 million in 2009 to 26 billion in 2020; nearly a 30-fold increase.

Since all of these Things are ostensibly there to serve humanity in some form, there is incredible potential power in the IoT. For example, miniaturized medical devices will be capable of automatically detecting and responding to anomalous conditions. Our ability to explore and understand our own planet and our solar system will be dramatically increased. Manufacturing and distribution will become much more efficient. Our homes will become smart enough to monitor and protect themselves, while supporting our lifestyles. Transportation, including driving our cars, will become automated. We are only now beginning to comprehend the good that the IoT will make possible.

A Range of Outcomes

But as with all technology, there is the potentiality for good, neutral and undesirable outcomes. With all the benefits noted, an enormous driving force behind all of this is commerce — selling products far more effectively using data to drive consumer decisions. The economic impact of the IoT will be enormous. McKinsey Global Institute reports that the IoT has the potential to create an economic impact of $2.7 trillion to $6.2 trillion annually by 2025. It’s easy to understand why large technology companies are investing heavily in the IoT.

Much of the force related to the IoT will be the almost unimaginable amount of data that will be produced. Research conducted by industry analyst group IDC revealed that the digital universe is doubling in size every two years and will multiply by 10-fold between 2013 and 2020. This equates to an increase from 4.4 trillion gigabytes to 44 trillion gigabytes of data. IDC observes that from now through 2020, the digital universe will double every two years. In very large part, this data will be about us.

This reality has created serious concerns about privacy and security. As InformationWeek notes, regulators at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the European Commission and other organizations are looking at privacy and security issues related to IoT. As noted by InformationWeek, “Concerns about how marketers, insurance companies and government agencies use personal data and about potential criminal activity lead to serious questions that we must address as the IoT’s capabilities expand.”

It is important to remember that these are not new concerns; they have been evolving as technology and the Internet has evolved. Generally, courts have held that lowered privacy is a concomitant cost to life in a society and an age where ubiquitous technology connects us all.

The IoT is here, it’s real, and higher education should be paying attention to the impact it will have on our institutions and our constituents. As with technology generally, there is enormous power that can be used for good. And, simultaneously, for the not so good.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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