Internet of Things

The Internet of Things: Ignored by the Candidates but Not by China

Aug. 23, 2012
Making IoT a U.S. economic development priority is our best hope to address massive global problems such as energy needs and global warming.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has been called the second great age of the Internet, although neither President Obama nor the Romney campaign have ever mentioned it. While our government remains silent, both the EU and China actively fund research projects, deploy IoT technology and create policies to govern it, raising the specter that we will be forced to buy vital technologies from abroad.

First, some background, since the business public is still largely unaware of the term Internet of Things, let alone the radical transformation it will bring to every aspect of our lives within this decade.

IoT is the concept that the same Internet that links humans can also link things – smartphones, computers in cars, industrial sensors and household appliances. Some say it became a reality in 2008 – the Internet now links more “things” than people – and IBM estimates that 1 trillion things will be networked by 2015!

That will in turn allow a wide range of innovations:

  • Healthcare will become a continuous patient-doctor dialogue.
  • Transportation will flow smoothly because vehicles sense each other’s presence and adapt accordingly -- if Google’s prototypes are brought to market, cars may actually even drive themselves.
  • Machine-to-machine communication will streamline assembly lines and supply chains.

In addition, IoT experts say it is the last, best hope to address massive global problems such as energy needs and global warming.

American firms are pioneering IoT innovations such as IBM’s Smarter Cities program or Vitality, Inc.’s prescription jars that tell your doctor if you took your pills. But they are threatened by state-supported Internet of Things projects underway in the EU and China. 

IoT in China

Nowhere is it more of a priority than China, where Premier Wen Jiabao called it an economic development priority in several speeches and in one case offered the formula Internet + Internet of Things = Wisdom of the Earth.

According to consulting firm CCID, the total value of China’s IoT industry last year was nearly $41 billion. CCID reported wide-ranging applications: “intelligent” industry, logistics, transportation, medical treatment, agriculture and environmental protection and the smart grid for electricity. The government routinely includes IoT elements such as sensors in public works projects such as bridges or high-speed rail, so structures will report when they need maintenance.

Making IoT a Priority

It’s time that the Internet of Things becomes an official U.S. economic development priority.

Both candidates can start raising public awareness by adding the IoT to their stump speeches and making campaign stops at IoT leaders such as Johnson Controls in Wisconsin or MIT.

Beyond the rhetorical, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer should convene a public-private conference to begin the overdue work of creating an agenda for effective federal support of the IoT industry. In the wake of the Solyndra loan guarantee the Administration is undoubtedly leery of trying to “pick winners” in the technology field, but the IoT is largely an enabling technology that will underlie a wide range of specific technologies and the basic technology is well proven. What is needed is more a range of demonstration programs – especially in areas such as transportation infrastructure where it would simply be a small incremental cost in projects that are already needed to spur economic development.

Personal Privacy & Security

One government official who is familiar with the IoT is CIA Director Petraeus, who commented about linked devices that will be found in every home, that “household spy devices change our notions of secrecy and prompt a rethink of our notions of identity and secrecy.”  Civil libertarians are rightly concerned there be adequate protections to avoid random snooping.

IoT security will constitute a critical and growing part of the broader concern about cybersecurity: as more and more essential services, such as the transportation network and the power grid, become “smart” and linked, the chances will grow that they may be targeted by hackers and/or foreign saboteurs. Congress’ failure to pass a comprehensive cybersecurity law is even more disappointing when the IoT is factored in.

Development of the Internet of Things is too advanced for government inaction to stop it. What is in question is whether we will buy the technology from abroad or if it will spark entrepreneurial innovation here at home. It’s time that the IoT becomes a household word – and a governmental priority.

W. David Stephenson is principal of Stephenson Strategies. He is a Gov./Enterprise 2-3.0 consultant and theorist. He particularly focuses on organizational data transformation strategies. He is also author of "SmartStuff," an e-book introduction to the Internet of Things and "Data Dynamite: How Liberating Information will Transform our World," a manifesto for global information liberation.

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