For some time now, futurists have imagined an "Internet of things" where everything from vehicles to appliances are part of one big network. Two decades ago, it seemed like a fanciful idea. Today, it looks inevitable. All the pieces are in place, and some of them are already connected.
A new report from the Pew Research Center Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center looks further ahead to 2025, and asks how things will have moved on by then. Its conclusions—summarized below—are based on responses from 2,551 people, both Internet "experts" and members of the public.
By 2025, people will have sensors implanted in their bodies. Dams and bridges will send maintenance data to engineers. Paper towel dispensers will bleep attendants when they need refilling. Fridges will automatically buy milk when the carton runs empty.
The best bit about this: less waste. "The net effect will be to reduce waste everywhere: in physical flows and logistics, in the movement of people and goods; in logical flows and logistics, in the movement of ideas and information..." says JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com. Storekeepers will move from a stocking model where they take regular deliveries in response to shortages, to "flows" where inventory is updated more responsively.
We'll also move away from just interacting with the Internet to letting our devices (wearable, of course) interact for us. "Most of our devices will be communicating on our behalf—they will be interacting with the physical and virtual worlds more than interacting with us," says Paul Saffo, managing director of Discern Analytics.
"The level of profiling and targeting will grow and amplify social, economic, and political struggles," the report says. How can it really not? With surveillance ubiquitous and everything quantified, it's going to be hard to escape from someone's electronic eye, whether it's the NSA or a company. Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland, says: "There will be a small class of ‘watchers’ and a much larger class of the experimented upon, the watched." Aaron Balick, a psychotherapist, thinks we could lose sight of ourselves. "Positive things may be tempered by a growing reliance on outsourcing to technologies that make decisions not based on human concerns, but instead on algorithms," he says. All of which is likely to increase the premium on ways to "disengage from the network," the report says.
Some time in the future, we'll skip trackpads and keyboards and plug our brains directly into the network. Maybe not by 2025, though. The report does expect us to connect to the Internet and message people using body movement and by twitching our eyelids. "Glass and watch interfaces are a start at this combination of strokes, acceleration, voice, and even shaking and touching device-to-device," says Paul Jones, a professor at the University of North Carolina.
If the ads for certain large technology brands are to be believed, the Internet of things always works perfectly. In real life, things go wrong. With such a large network encompassing so many devices and objects (Cisco says there will be 50 billion by 2020) there's a lot of complexity, and plenty of opportunity for errors and malfeasance. "We will live in a world where many things won’t work, and nobody will know how to fix them," says Howard Rheingold, an Internet sociologist. Our successes in integrating many things successfully may lead to overreach and hubris, the report's respondents say.
Some people will be very well connected. But, as in the present day, others won't. "The unconnected and those who just don’t want to be connected may be disenfranchised," the report says. "People left behind will be increasingly invisible and increasingly seen as less than full humans," comments K.G. Schneider, a university librarian.
Doc Searls, at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, says that some things may have their own cloud, rather than existing in one big cloud. And that could change how companies provide customer service, for example. "Today, all customer-service frameworks are provided by companies, and not by customers," he writes. "In the new system we see emerging above, customers will own—and standardize—the relationships they have with companies."