Lots of shiny, new, sensor-equipped "Internet things" are on gift lists this year, from phones to fridges. Start considering the practical applications now.
For years, the Internet of Things was a future engineers could only dream about, but the technology is fast becoming a reality, with huge ramifications for the economy and society.
The Internet is no longer just a network for people to communicate with other people. It's now a platform for networked devices to communicate with other devices: refrigerators with the electric utility, in-car navigation systems with roadway sensors, pacemakers with a computer in the doctor's office. This Internet of Things is enabled by a combination of technological advances, including low-cost sensors, low-power processors, and widespread wireless connectivity. It's creating a world that's alive with information.
As consumers head out to do their holiday shopping, an Internet of Things device might be on their list, sometimes without their realizing it. For the health-conscious, a variety of products such as FitBit activity sensors help people monitor their fitness levels. For the eco-friendly, there's the Nest thermostat, which learns users' preferences and schedules and then optimizes their homes' heating and cooling. Even those shopping for big-ticket items will find products and services with sensors and connectivity built-in -- cars with OnStar's emergency alert system, for example, or one of Whirlpool's smart appliances.
In the coming years, the Internet of Things will transform our world so that the ability to "know and control" is embedded in our homes, offices, vehicles, and cities. This transformation will have profound implications for addressing important social and economic issues.
Consider the impact the Internet of Things will have on energy. First, smart meters are building intelligence into the electric grid so that utilities can identify usage in real time, identify and repair network problems, and optimize energy production. Second, smart appliances combined with dynamic pricing of electricity let customers automatically reduce their energy usage during periods of peak demand, saving them money and reducing their environmental footprint. Third, the Internet of Things is unlocking the potential of renewable energy by letting consumers sell energy back to the grid, and by creating more efficient wind turbines and solar panels optimized based on weather conditions.
As the technology advances, we must ask this question: Will the government make or break the Internet of Things? Al Gore didn't invent the Internet, but the US government has had an important role in its formation, with early years at DARPA, and continued development, including recent efforts by the FCC to expand access to broadband. But bad public policies can undermine new technologies as well.
Although private-sector innovation is responsible for most of the devices that comprise the Internet of Things, policymakers will determine how these devices and related technologies are regulated and whether government agencies are early adopters. Just as important as the devices themselves will be the software layer that collects and processes the data generated by the Internet of Things. For example, a number of devices already let patients monitor their health conditions remotely, but this data must be standardized and integrated into electronic health records. And communications between vehicles on the road might serve one purpose for drivers, another purpose for an insurance company, and yet a third purpose for city planners -- requiring novel legal arrangements for data sharing.
Given the magnitude of the economic impact the Internet of Things will have, consumers and policymakers must start paying attention now. Fortunately, many of them can start learning with the devices they receive this holiday season.
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