Come 2020 and millions or even billions of smart electronic devices, linked by the Internet, would interact with each other independent of human intervention. This network of interacting electronic devices is named as the Internet of Things (IoT). Looking at it from our times (2013), one could expect the IoT to consist of PCs, tablet computers, digital cameras, e-Book readers, mobile phones, robots, private and public computer networks and whatever new smart electronic devices that would be developed between now and 2020.
What would that mean to you and me? Here are some of the key benefits... and costs.
Automation: Automation will have reached such high levels as to cause a paradigm shift in our lifestyles. One of the most significant changes, that we can expect to see is that our lives will become far more comfortable than now. Physically, we would have to travel less. There will be even more time to dedicate to our primary occupations and of course, to vacations, rest and relaxation.
Here are a few examples to help one appreciate what life would be like in the IoT age. You can, for example, expect your PC to automatically order groceries when their stocks fall below set levels. If you had a specialised robot at home, you can set it to open the door to a visitor after verifying his/her identity. So, if you have both a PC and robot at home, when the grocery store's delivery person arrives at the door and rings the bell (assuming that his/her identity info. (information) has been stored in the robot), you can expect your robot to verify his/her identity info. and open the door, check in your purchases, send an electronic acknowledgement to the store, say "Bye!" to the delivery person, close the door and then deposit the purchases at a places you have taught it to. Devices using high-tech sensors can then be expected to notify your PC that fresh stocks have arrived (as well as their quantities) and the PC, in turn, will automatically update stock balances and pay off the store by issuing an instruction to your bank/credit card account. So you could have been out fishing or working and all this would still happen correctly without the need for your being at home! Sounds good? Your PC can also remind you when maintenance of your oven, fridge or car is next due and optionally, call or SMS the technician to fix an appointment. If the technicians' identity info. is stored in your robot, then, clearly, you don't need to be at home when he/she calls. This means you can plan to do something else during the technician's visit, even if that will take you away from home! And, on a day when you returned home, tired, and went to off to sleep, won't it be a pleasant surprise to wake up and discover that your mobile phone sent birthday greetings to some friends automatically, even when you had forgotten and were sleeping? With the IoT, the possibilities of automating tasks are seemingly endless.
Cost Savings: Due to the inherent efficiency of electronic networks as well as elimination of many intermediate jobs/processes involved in trade, there would be a marked, positive impact on the economy so that prices of goods and/or services may fall.
Problems of IoT device failure/malfunction:
The first setback to the joys of highly automated living is likely to be experienced when an IoT device fails/malfunctions. It can be an unnerving experience, the severity of which will depend on the kind of failure. Suppose your robot suddenly develops a fault one day and fails to identify someone who rings the bell of your house? The visitor may be a friend or person you have granted access to your home, but the robot does not recognize him/her. Instead it comes to the conclusion that the person outside is a burglar and seizes him/her, chains him/her up securely and then sends off an SOS message to the police? What if it mistook you for a burglar and made you a captive in your own house? You will need to switch it off immediately and call an expert to fix the problem.
More damaging is a bug or malfunction that remains dormant for sometime - the longer it goes undetected, the greater the damage. Take, for example, the case of automated grocery purchases by your PC (above), once again. You notice over a period of several months that your grocery bills have been rising without any justifiable reason. So you watch the next purchase carefully and find that the some of the quantities mentioned in the invoice are higher than those ordered. You rush to the grocery store and make a complaint. They investigate and find that a fraudster at a distant place has found your store customer code. Using an ingenious method, he/she intercepts orders sent by your PC and selectively increases some order quantities before they reach the store. He/she simultaneously inserts a spurious goods return advice in the store's computer which generates a refund that accounts for the difference in quantities. However, instead of the credit going to your bank/credit card account, it goes off to the fraudster's account. The last step, how credit due to you gets redirected to the fraudster's (unknown) bank account is something the store itself can't make out! In this situation, the longer it takes you to wake up and take action, the larger is the quantum of your money stolen. Early detection (say after the very first or second purchase) would have resulted in relatively small damages while the more delayed it gets, the more damages you stand to suffer.
Computer/technology literacy will become a must:
How comfortable are you with modern, high-tech terms like phishing, vishing, HTTP, HTTPS, ASCII, Java, HTML, bandwidth, bit, byte, LAN, WAN, WiFi and 'Internet Protocol'? (To know more about one of these terms, look up an encyclopaedia or visit Wikipedia and enter the term in the 'Search' box e.g. enter 'phishing' and click on the magnifying glass symbol to get details about phishing.) Were you aware that email is valid proof in a court of law? Did you know that digital signatures can be used to authenticate the sender of an electronic document in a manner that is tamper-proof? Good if you did, since these are some of the basics that one needs to be familiar with to fruitfully and confidently use a computer today. And if it's that way it is today, you can be sure you'll need to know much more (and keep learning) in the IoT era. How else will you, for example, be able to understand the intricacies of a legal case involving IoT, in which, say, you are implicated? Or understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Government's Information Technology (IT) policy in order to vote for or against a proposed change?
While keeping abreast with IoT and technology may be easy for workers in the IT industry, professors, scientists, engineers and the like, the elderly and those in other occupations will find it hard to keep pace. So, what's the way out for them? They will need to take help from an expert, whenever necessary. A new breed of 'public technology consultants', professionals akin to public prosecutors in law, may spring up to fill this need.
Loss of Privacy:
To avail of the benefits of IoT, more personal data than now will become visible on the Internet. Data about a person may travel widely over the Internet and to distant geographical locations too. Data in transit is the data hacker's goldmine. Given sufficient time, expert hackers who can put two and two together will be able capture and assemble your complete profile, by collecting personal data in pieces at different points of time. So, in addition to credit card information, there may be databases all over the world that keep track of your age, sex, spending habits, energy consumption, the gadgets you own, preferences in music, sports and recreation, your near family members, places that you frequently visit etc. and a whole lot of other things that can be deduced from these. Be prepared, thus, for targeted ads and offers from unknown persons and places all over the world! Increased exposure, can also be harmful, particularly if someone wants to blackmail you, hold you to ransom or cause hurt to your reputation. Therefore, beware!
Legal systems of the future must be equipped with remedies and hurting penalties that will serve as a strong deterrent to such offences being committed.
Automation and employment are inversely related. Hence, the rise of IoT, which has automation at it's core, is likely to kill several jobs. Millions of clerical and manufacturing jobs are expected to be axed permanently, before the dawn of the IoT era.
Human obsolescence and safety :
For decades, science fiction has warned of a future when we would be architects of our own obsolescence, replaced by our machines. According to some analysts, that time can be treated as having arrived when the IoT has come of age. At that time, most clerical and middle-level jobs will have vanished so that, with time hanging heavily on our hands, many of us might begin to feel unimportant and obsolete.
Then come concerns about how secure we'll feel living in an environment controlled by machines. If IoT is controlled by trustworthy human experts at necessary levels, in every field of application, there won't be need for worry. In addition, another question that arises is how much autonomy it is good to give to an IoT device like a robot, that has intelligence as well as the power to move and use it's limbs to do work. The more autonomous a robot, the more it can do, without stopping for our intervention, with the result that the quantum of work it does in one go will be more than a less autonomous one. But there is also a price to pay for the increase in quantum of work - the robot cannot be interrupted or stopped, once it has started on a task. Needless to say, this can be disastrous once the robot develops a bug that causes it to harm us directly or indirectly. Therefore, while autonomy without compromising safety is desirable, autonomy that compromises it is dangerous. Hopefully, powerful and autonomous robots will not be allowed connect to the IoT, but if they are allowed to, we will be exposed to the dangers posed by their malfunctioning - a single serious malfunction in a powerful, empowered robot/device, will be sufficient to trigger off a chain of events that wreak havoc in some parts of the world or even wipe life out from the face of the earth, forever!
So what do we say in conclusion? Is there any need for action or can we just stay relaxed and do nothing? It is a matter of much relief when we discover from history that though technology futurists have routinely painted bleak and grim futures of technology issues/advancements in the past, those issues passed off painlessly, or, at least, with far less severity than predicted. An example to cite from not too long back is the Y2K bug. In the last decade of the 20th century, ending in 1999, despite the preparatory work done worldwide, some experts had warned that certain disastrous consequences of the bug might strike in the first few minutes of 1st January, 2000. Many, therefore, waited with bated breath at the dawn of the 21st century but were relieved to find that things passed off very peacefully! The same can be hoped for IoT since work is already underway to address the issues mentioned above. At least one IoT standard, the IEEE 1888, is already in place. Global leaders from all related fields - industry, academia and government are at work to ensure that the IoT age will be safe and livable and the transition to it will be smooth. You and I only need to be aware that IoT is coming soon and to follow IoT news and developments. This will enable us to respond to issues mooted for public endorsement in an informed manner so that the IoT evolves into a global service that is reliable, transparent, safe, accountable, fault-tolerant and most importantly, user-friendly.