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By Ed McLaughlin and Wyn Lydecker

The Internet of Things has gotten a lot of airtime recently, from comments about how much venture capital it brought in in 2013  ($1 billion, in case you don’t want to click through to the Washington Post) to the Pew Research piece of ten days ago that claims it will thrive in 2025. But what is the Internet of Things?

It’s a misleading name. It sounds like your fridge is going to start sending cat pictures to your car, but don’t worry. The Internet of Things is the name for the world of diverse interconnected devices whose end result is greater than the sum of its parts.

Let’s start with a basic example: if you have a proximity key for your car, the car knows when the key is near and can turn on the lights to welcome you across the parking lot. Additionally, the car can refuse to lock if it detects a key still inside.

Those two things, the key and the car, are interacting wirelessly. They create a network with two nodes. Of course, those two items are designed to do exactly that, and they are sold together for that purpose. The Internet of Things is bigger and broader.

Let’s look at a more complicated example: the FitBit. FitBit is a little wristband with a computer inside that tracks the wearer’s physical activity. That’s not terribly new, in and of itself. What is new is how it connects to other parts of the wearer’s life.

A FitBit user can go to a website that keeps track of trends in her exercise/activity, which can help her make a plan to meet her fitness goals. She can share progress on a variety of social media platforms. This new interconnectivity of what is, essentially, a pedometer, is the societal phenomenon we call the Internet of Things.

Pew Research claims we can expect a “global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases, and massive data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things.”

As computers enter our cars, refrigerators, and clothes, they will learn to perceive our needs and commands without the interruption of a mouse or keyboard. Big Data is already ahead of our needs, as we can see from Target knowing a customer was pregnant before she did. We will be the basking beneficiaries, surrounded by gloves that know the backs of our hands better than we do. (OMSignal of Montreal has already started this process with a t-shirt that knows when we need to calm down.)

Now the question arises: is this a good thing? In what ways do we need to change as a society to function in this world? Having our needs met by prescient machines sounds pretty great, but this research was published within a week of Everything Is Broken, by Quinn Norton, an article about what a cyber-security mess we are already in, just with the existing internet agents. Will bringing my coffee-maker online help that situation? Is it worth the security headaches to have the latté I didn’t even known I wanted?

What do you think? Are we headed toward a utopia full of toasters that have our bagels done perfectly the moment we step out of the shower, or a dystopian nightmare in which every appliance is an opportunity for hackers to access our lives? Let us know in the comments!

Ed McLaughlin is currently co-writing the book “The Purpose Is Profit: Secrets of a Successful Entrepreneur from Startup to Exit” with Wyn Lydecker and Paul McLaughlin.


Copyright © 2014 by Ed McLaughlin All rights reserved.