#IoT and the future of the interconnected society: interview with Kevin Ashton

Kevin Ashton
Kevin Ashton

What implications will the Internet of Things have in the near future? Can we try to imagine how the world will be interconnected in a few years? But above all, can we trust in the promise of imminent transformation made by the Internet of Things? Privacy and security have always been the two biggest concerns for the development of technologies and IoT is not an exception: how can we get around it?

We asked these questions to Kevin Ashton, an british technology pioneer, founder of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and creator of a global standard for RFID and other sensors. Ashton is also famous for inventing the term “Internet of Things” in order to describe a system in which the Internet is connected to the physical world through disseminated sensors. Recently he released his book “How To Fly A Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery”, a journey through the history of inventions and its players.

1) It was 1999 when you defined the Internet of Things for the first time in strict relation with the RFID-enabled devices. Nowadays there is a lot of talk on IoT devices, data and individuals more and more connected. There is a lot of interest on the beneficial opportunities stemming from the IoT, smart cities, big data and cloud computing in general. According to your personal perspective, what does the IoT mean today? How does it compare to your vision in 1999? And how will it likely further change in the future?
The Internet of Things was never just about RFID; RFID was just one of the first technologies that made a distributed ubiquitous wireless sensor network seem possible. And that’s still what the Internet of things is about: a ubiquitous wireless sensor network that automates the gathering of information. It’s a fundamental infrastructure with almost limitless consequences and benefits. We heard a lot of twentieth century technologists saying “information wants to be free.” I am not sure that’s true, but I do know this: in the twenty-first century, information wants to be automatic.
2) On your blog you stated ” We are inclined to see technology as unpredictable, and consequences as easy to predict, but it is the other way around. When it comes to technology, the future is as easy to see as it is hard to believe”. Does this also apply to IoT? How hard is to envision and believe to the consequences that the IoT is about to bring?
Yes, that applies to all technology. In terms of IoT, it is easy to see what is coming: a massive, highly distributed, ubiquitous sensor network made up of tiny disposable devices that operate using no discernible power, connected to Internet-based machine learning tools that analyze massive amounts of disparate data in real time and reach powerful, useful conclusions, coupled to distributed actuators that turn those conclusions into real-world actions. What does that mean? One easy, imminent example is the self-driving car, which is coming far more quickly than most people seem to realize. People will stop driving during the 2020s, and let their Internet of Things-connected cars take over. That alone has massive implications for how we live, for how we use time and energy, for how we rethink our cities and urban systems. That one application will practically eliminate traffic jams, road traffic accidents, and gas stations. Those are the first-order consequences. What are the second-order consequences—the consequences of those consequences? That question is impossible to answer, but nearly all of them will be good, and extraordinary.
3) Privacy and security are the major concerns deriving from an imminent development of the Internet of Things on a global scale. Which are the biggest challenges  suggested by this scenario?
They’re not my major concerns, to be honest. Privacy is a solved problem. We just need to implement the solution. When they are not in public, people should have a real, informed choice about what information about themselves they make available to others. There may be some luxuries related to information technology that they cannot have as a consequence, but they should be able to make the trade off. This is not a technical problem, but a legal, regulatory, and policy question. Security is, and always has been, a case of continuous improvement; it is not a question that can ever be solved once and for all. People find ways around security protections, security protections improve, people find ways around the improved protections, and so on. In the case of IoT, almost all information on the Internet is secure almost all of the time. We need to keep working on ways to reduced the number, size, and frequency of the exceptions.
4) Can you express, in a tweet, how will the Interconnected World look like in 2100?
Not really. In 2100 technology and its consequences will be make the world fairly unrecognizable to people born in the twentieth century. The difference between 2000 and 2100 will be far greater than the difference between 1900 and 2000. Everything will be even better though: more peace, more literacy, longer life expectancy, higher quality of life. The big challenge may be inequality. We are seeing some of the benefits of technology accrue only to the few, and that’s a trend we need for reverse.
(The italian version of the interview is available here.)

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