The internet – as we now know it – has been an increasingly key part of our lives since 1995. In those 20 or so years, humanity has changed from being interested in ´mere´ hardware and software in isolation, to wanting to generate meaningful connectivity via this technology for people in the workplace. This has given rise to the Internet of Things (IoT).
The IoT is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people, each of which have unique technological identifiers and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. In the IoT, a ‘thing’, can be any natural or man-made object that can be assigned an IP address and given the ability to transfer data over a network.
The IoT has evolved from the convergence of wireless technologies, micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), microservices and the internet. This convergence is helping to remove information silos between operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT). In turn, this is allowing unstructured machine-generated data to be analyzed for insights that could prompt technological improvements.
In the same way that Sir Tim Berners-Lee is credited as being the ‘father’ of the internet, so Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID Center at MIT, originated the term, ‘IoT’ – mentioning it in a presentation in 1999. According to Ashton, “Today, computers — and, therefore, the internet — are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information… The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy – all of which means they’re not good at capturing data about things in the real world.
“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things, using data they gathered without any help from us, we’d be able to track and count everything and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We’d know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling – and whether they were fresh or past their best.”
Many industries – including precision agriculture, building management, healthcare, energy and transportation – claim to be already benefitting from the IoT. Yet, in a recent article in The Guardian newspaper in the UK, Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently attacked three, current, internet trends, claiming that:
1) We’ve lost control of our personal data
The current business model for many websites offers free content in exchange for personal data. Our data is then held in proprietary silos – and, often, we aren’t able to tell companies what data we’d rather not share, especially with third parties. Moreover, through collaboration with companies, governments are increasingly watching our online activity and data is then held in proprietary silos – and, often, we aren’t able to tell companies what data we’d rather not share, especially with third parties. Moreover, through collaboration with companies, governments are increasingly watching our online activity and passing extreme laws that trample on our rights to privacy.
2) It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web
Today, most people find news and information on the web through a handful of social media sites and search engines. These sites make more money when we click on the links they show us – and they choose what to show us based on algorithms that learn from our personal data that they’re constantly harvesting. The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – so misinformation, or fake news, can spread like wildfire.
3) Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding
Many people get their information from a few platforms and the increasing sophistication of algorithms, drawing upon rich pools of personal data, mean that political campaigns are now building individual adverts targeted directly at users. One source suggests that, in the 2016 US election, up to 50,000 variations of adverts were being served every day on Facebook.
Sir Tim advocates working with web companies to strike a balance that puts a ‘fair’ level of data control back in the hands of people, including the development of new technology such as personal ‘data pods’ and exploring alternative revenue models such as subscriptions and micropayments. He says, “We need more algorithmic transparency to understand how important decisions that affect our lives are being made and, perhaps, a set of common principles to be followed. We urgently need to close the ‘internet blind spot’ in the regulation of political campaigning.”
Sir Tim may have invented the web, but everyone has helped to create what it is today – both the helpful things about it and the unhelpful. It’s all part of the inevitability of our imperfect world. However, it seems that the next technological issue with which we must grapple is how to make the IoT increasingly useful while protecting the sensitive data on which it’s developed.