The Internet of Things as a Giant Robot

Imagine all the devices, clothes, and objects that you use in your everyday life have tiny censors and computers, have networked capabilities, and constantly collect, exchange, and synthesize data  in autonomous ways. From your wrist watch to your tennis shoes; from the bedroom light bulb to the toaster in the kitchen; from the TV screen to the car belt seats, objects are now capable of collecting, exchanging, and processing data and being on the Internet.  Welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT), a giant complex system we are building, feeding, and testing at a frantic speed, and that, as Bruce Schneier has argued before, is a sort of world-size robot. A massive and global system that is capable of sensing, computing, and acting over the world and over our bodies.

With the computerization and digitization of everyday life, all kinds of objects have become embedded with sensors, software, and network connectivity.  Eventually, if the tendency to embed objects with computers and to connect them to the Internet continues, everything will be online. As this process happens, the online and offline worlds are merging, becoming a giant interconnected system capable of sensing and acting upon our environment and upon our bodies. Bruce’s world-size robot analogy is powerful because it allows us to recognize that the IoT has multiple eyes, noses, tongues, ears, and skins that are sensing; millions of hands and feet that work as the actuators; and massive data collection and processing capabilities that are the brain.

The Internet of things’ sensors collect and exchange data about our environment and about the bodies that wear them or to which they are attached. From climate conditions to number of cars and bodies on a street. From breathing patterns to weight, the giant robot will be able to sense public and private environments as well as our intimate bodies.

The Internet of things’ actuators are the hands and feet. They are able to affect our environment and our bodies. A light bulb would be able to change the color of the room according to the genre of music that is being played on the stereo. Your mobile phone would tell you to stand up from your desk and take a walk based on your breathing pattern. Your car would take the fastest route to the movie theater based on traffic conditions.

Although there are benefits from connecting everything to the Internet such as being able to monitor environmental and personal health conditions, there are also many risks. The giant, world-size, robot is hackable, insecure, and holds too much public and private data. It can be used for massive surveillance and weakening peoples rights to privacy. Given the hackable qualities of computers and digital technology, the Internet of things also represents security risks for humans, cities, and societies. From data breaches of private information to manipulation of public transportation systems, the risk of accidents both at micro and massive scale increases with such level of inter-connectivity. Not to mention the potential for cyberwarfare only increases with the proliferation of the Internet of Things technology across governmental,  industrial and consumer sectors.

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