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When we think of the Internet of Things, we think of sensors, cars, air-conditioners, TV sets, silly things, creepy things and more. But when you step back and look at the broader picture, the IoT adds up to a lot more than just a bunch of stuff connected to the internet and each other.
According to this essay from Resilient Systems CTO Bruce Schneier, the “things” in question can be classified into two broad groups: sensors collecting environmental information (thermostats, highway sensors, smartphones, etc) and actuators that will interact with and affect that environment (self-adjusting thermostats, driverless cars, autonomous drones, etc). And both classes of things will be run for the most part autonomously by intelligent software in the cloud.
What that ups to, in a sense, is an internet that can sense, think and act, often without any human intervention. Put another way, says Schneier, “We're building a world-sized robot, and we don't even realize it.”
The robot angle is metaphorical, of course, but Schneier’s term for this is “the World-Sized Web:
The World-Sized Web -- can I call it WSW? -- is more than just the Internet of Things. Much of the WSW's brains will be in the cloud, on servers connected via cellular, Wi-Fi, or short-range data networks. It's mobile, of course, because many of these things will move around with us, like our smartphones. And it's persistent. You might be able to turn off small pieces of it here and there, but in the main the WSW will always be on, and always be there.
None of these technologies are new, but they're all becoming more prevalent. I believe that we're at the brink of a phase change around information and networks. The difference in degree will become a difference in kind. That's the robot that is the WSW.
Schneier isn’t predicting a Skynet takeover scenario – his point is that all of these various efforts to develop the IoT is changing the internet into something far different than the traditional paradigm we’ve grown to understand, and we really have no idea what the consequences (good and bad) are going to be:
These changes are inherently unpredictable, because they're based on the emergent properties of these new technologies interacting with each other, us, and the world. In general, it's easy to predict technological changes due to scientific advances, but much harder to predict social changes due to those technological changes. For example, it was easy to predict that better engines would mean that cars could go faster. It was much harder to predict that the result would be a demographic shift into suburbs. Driverless cars and smart roads will again transform our cities in new ways, as will autonomous drones, cheap and ubiquitous environmental sensors, and a network that can anticipate our needs.
This doesn’t mean we should stop developing IoT platforms and services until we can be sure of the outcome. It just means we should be more aware of the nature of the beast (so to speak) – in other words, perhaps we should be thinking of the IoT in terms of robotics, not mere connected devices accessing the cloud.
Schneier offers a course of action. I recommend reading it.