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The Internet of Things (IoT) will help society do more with less, drive efficiencies, and light a fire under economic growth, but concerns around change-averse industries and user privacy may delay that promise.

That was the take-away from a World Affairs Council panel held at Cadence May 7. The sold-out event featured executives from GE, ARM, eBay, and Cisco and was moderated by Aleecia McDonald, director of Privacy at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.  (Right, from L-R, panelists Stephen Pattison, ARM; Katherine Butler, GE Software; Guido Jouret, Cisco; Steve Yankovich, eBay; moderator Aleecia McDonald, Stanford)

"I think this is going to be a new industrial revolution," said Stephen Pattison, vice president of Public Affairs with ARM. "If we get IoT right, it will unleash economic growth and embrace whole swathes of people all over the world, creating jobs, delivering services, making lives better for everyone." 

Guido Jouret, vice president and general manager of Cisco's IoT Group, teed up the potential that comes with billions of new connected devices--27 billion of them in the next few years.

Today, about one percent of devices with electrical connections are connected to a network. By 2030, the world will need 40 percent more energy, and half the planet won't have access to clean drinking water. Half of all food is wasted or rots, he added.

"We know that the answers are not 'let's grow more food or find more water.' We have to take advantage of the infrastructures we have today, and one of the ways to do that is by connecting the unconnected." 

Pattison said one aspect of IoT--the industrial Internet--has "enormous relevance for the future," especially the prospect of repatriating manufacturing to countries and regions that have lost that to lower-cost areas.

"Once you get IoT in manufacturing, that whole dynamic changes," he said. Factories can be remotely managed and don't have to make the same thing day in and day out, he noted.

But where some industries stand to benefit enormously from IoT technology, others may actively hinder its growth and adoption.

For example, "The medical environment has done a great job resisting change," Jouret said. "It's all about expert knows best. 'Just take (our) advice.'"

Technology isn't the major challenge to the growth of IoT, although there are some areas of improvement, notably algorithms and artificial intelligence, according to McDonald, who noted that AI has for decades been called the technology for "20 years from now."

Jouret acknowledged that while algorithms today aren't as robust as they should or will be, systems benefit from massive amounts of data. 

"The weakness in the algorithms has, to some extent, been offset by the richness in the data. Brute force Big Data approaches provide pretty good results," he said.

Jouret cited Google Translate as example of an AI-driven application that's not perfect but works for many users.

Panelists generally agreed that the industrial applications for IoT will surge much faster than consumer applications because the business models--and efficiency gains--will be compelling. In addition, the privacy concerns are less.

But privacy will play some role in industrial applications and for more consumer-facing uses it threatens to stall growth, the panelists agreed.

Said Katherine Butler, general counsel with GE Software:

"A lot of IoT will get built out by industries. The front end of that on the consumer side is one that needs a different debate. It should not just be the application of the technology without a thoughtful discussion, and we're going to absolutely have to do that on the consumer side so people do understand what's happening with their personal data."

Pattison went further, saying that even devices in the industrial space need to be considered:

"The IoT will surround you with objects that stream data. Sensors won't have user interfaces and it'll be harder to set permissions for where the data is going and how it's going to be used. So unless we get a framework for how we handle data, we run the risk of more freak events...and debates that head off course and to some extent holds up this future development."  

He called for "more sensible, measured debate" that involves a variety of stakeholders who establish a framework in which consumers can feel confident about how their data is handled. And this needs to be led by industry, he added.

But IoT technologies empower people and hold the promise of changing the relationship between doctor and patient.

Steve Yankovich, vice president of Innovation and New Ventures at eBay, used a crowd-sourcing example and concerns about privacy. What if a patient with heart trouble was perfectly willing to share data among a group of patients with similar conditions to crowd-source his own treatment?

"If you think it's going to help save your life, you're going to let your data go," he said.

On the other hand, in response to an audience question about whether we can ever hope to wrestle back control of our data from companies, Yankovich offered a different example: The connected home. Today's vision sees various consumer appliances connecting to the cloud to manage energy or order goods to replenish, say, refrigerator stores. But we could architect the smart home such that it's a walled garden and only specific requests leave its confines, he argued.

"The algorithms and business logic stays in the home," he said. "'What you can do for me' is all that leaves the building."


Brian Fuller

Related stories:

--Embedded World 2014: Confronting IoT, Automotive, and Security Challenges in Electronics Design