Marc Andreessen’s essay “Why Software is Eating the World” generated major buzz when it was published in the Wall Street Journal in 2011. In a nutshell, he argued that software companies would begin “eating markets far larger than the technology industry has historically been able to pursue.” And indeed, software disrupted long-standing giants across industries globally. Now, another yet powerful technology, IoT – combining the software world with hardware world – will bring even greater change upon us.
What is IoT? IoT encompasses software, hardware, sensors, controllers, machine learning and artificial intelligence in an end-to-end, closed loop fashion to get physical tasks done in an intelligent way, with and without human involvement. The impact of IoT can be analysed in three categories: on society, on nations and on our planet.
When society runs on machines
As we’ve already seen in manufacturing and other industries, IoT has enabled connected “things” to complete tasks faster, cheaper and with fewer errors than humans, and will ultimately take over many different kinds of jobs. Driving cars, taking restaurant orders and fulfilling deliveries are just a few examples of what machines are currently doing or will do in the near future. With less need for human-involved work, we must turn our attention towards creating new kinds of roles for people to earn a living and keep evolving their skills. An example could be that when a smart home detects the fall of an elderly resident, it immediately signals to a registered nearby person to help and that person is given access to the home via a time-based certificate in a connected lock. The helper can then be given instruction via augmented reality on care procedures until paramedics arrive on the scene. In this scenario, a new IoT-dependant job is created for the benefit of society.
When our nations’ basic infrastructure is run by machines
As more and more “things” come online, our physical infrastructure becomes more adaptable – and vulnerable. Presently, most cyber-attacks are related to information theft, data loss or denial of service. With IoT merging hardware and software, cyber-attacks could open or close the gates of a connected dam, shut down power grids or even hijack a food supply chain. It is conceivable that a third world war will be fought in cyberspace with no guns and bombs, but still with massive damage to physical infrastructure and loss of life. We should hope that we have designed our artificial intelligence algorithms and intelligent controls in such a way that the collective IoT would recognise that any kind of war is a losing proposition for all sides, and refuse to get involved.
What will happen to our planet?
Arguably, IoT’s greatest impact will be on the environment. Gartner has forecasted that 8.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide by the end of 2017. Rapidly advancing technology has led to rising rates of obsolescence, generating exponential quantities of electronic waste globally. For example, one turbine has close to 500 sensors that are simply thrown away and replaced when they stop working. These devices contain many harmful “toxic tech” chemicals, such as arsenic, cadmium and lead compounds.
Dangerous substances endanger our natural resources as well as the lives of the people who must work with and dispose of them. TrashTrack, an IoT-based waste study at MIT, examined the dark side of the supply chain – the so-called ‘removal-chain.’ By using ‘trash tags’ to track the journeys of discarded devices and their parts, it details the way in which electronic waste travels the globe, often winding up in forests and oceans instead of at recycling stations.
IoT does have a bright side, in that it can make industries operate with much higher energy efficiency and make a true ‘green revolution’ possible. For example, advances in smart sync technologies can enable operations of smart grids with 100% renewable power. We should work not only on these energy efficiency gains, but also on proper recycling and on green electronics made from compostable materials. Current recycling fees on computers at the point of sale are a step in right direction, and if we do invest in further research, we could avoid a bleak future like the one depicted in Pixar’s Wall-E, where electronic waste has rendered the earth uninhabitable.
So where does this leave us?
The way IoT matures now will shape our future into something straight out of Hollywood. But will it be a glimmering sci-fi fantasy coming to life, or a dark and foreboding dystopia? Man and machine are becoming ever more closely intertwined, and AI reaching near-human levels of intelligence could put people on the level of “things” in the wider ecosystem.
While Andreessen rightfully predicted that software would disrupt our economy, we must now address the reality that IoT has the potential to revolutionize our entire world. It is therefore vital to ensure that nations, societies and organisations work together to ensure that software and IoT transform our planet sustainably and offer a better life for all.