Is the Internet of Things Waiting for a Hero?

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We live in a world where smart technology abounds. Every day more and more physical objects are embedded with sensors that link wirelessly to one another and devices communicate to make our lives simpler – the Internet of Things is becoming a reality! Every brave new world needs a hero and today’s digital world is no exception.

The question is who will become the hero of the Internet of the Things? Who will be the new Vince Cerf, Tim Berners-Lee or Steve Jobs? Who will be the father of something that virally transforms the intangible into something concrete, powerful and awe inspiring? These thoughts occurred to me during a recent roundtable about the Internet of Things organized by the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies (C-PET), for which I am an advisor.

At this roundtable we discussed this year’s “Internet of Things Conference” in Brussels, where the vision of 50 billion enabled devices being connected by the year 2020 caused much excitement. Concern was expressed, however, about the diverse cultural differences affecting European and the US approaches to the regulation and standardization of this new technology.

The European Union has established an Internet of Things expert group, with six subgroups that focus on identity, privacy, security, ethics, architecture and standards. Their goal is to issue a report by the end of the year that will be used for public consultation during 2012, with an impact assessment delivered by July and regulations determined by the end of 2012.

Concern was expressed about the European human right’s requirement for the right to be forgotten and the ability to silence the chips, which means that people can effectively go off the grid and manage their own “digital footprint”. In other words, individuals should be able to control what digital information is collected about them, know where it is stored in the cloud and who has access to it. This is in stark contrast to the US approach to Internet of Things technology which lacks any apparent coordinated activity or consultation.

This technological phenomenon is set to transform the nature of society and business as we know it, and on a global scale. To the average person, the Internet of Things is still an inanimate and intangible possibility in the same way that the Internet was back in the early 90’s. The fundamental difference is that the rate of development, innovation and adoption of this new technology will bring change far faster than regulations can keep pace with.

At the Internet of Things conference in June this year, reference was made to three different technology cultures – those of West Coast USA, East Coast USA and Europe. The West Coast is about prototyping innovation and believing that the possible is inevitable. The East Coast is about profit and power, where the possible is threatening and lawyers line up to litigate. In Europe a precautionary and philosophical stance is taken to ensure the rights of people are not infringed, and the possibility is considered but its implementation is delayed.

Back in 1995, Nicholas Negroponte wrote in his book “Being Digital”: “we must knowingly create safe digital environments”. Today, however, the pace of technological change makes it very difficult for governments to define regulations that ensure the safety, security and well-being of their citizens, particularly when those technologies are global, and worldwide cooperation and collaboration is required.

Why do I believe that a hero is needed for the Internet of Things? It’s the Double Power Principle: all technologies have the power for good as well as ill, and most of the time it’s up to us to knowingly lead the way and harness that power for good use. To enable the power of the Internet of Things, it would require someone with vision to capture people’s imaginations and inspire innovation and new ideas, to dispel their fear of this new technology and to take advantage of the abundance of efficiencies that this revolution can enable.

The probability is that it will not be one single hero in one particular country. Most likely it will be a collection of open innovators who are connected globally and share their ideas across communities. The concept of 6 billion people leveraging 50 billion devices for the purpose of solving global issues and enhancing the well-being of mankind is the kind of thing that myths are made of. Every myth has a hero – and the hero here would be one who could traverse cultural boundaries to ensure that the Internet of Things becomes seamlessly incorporated into our digital lives.

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