At the intersection of technology, economics, and social imperatives is the Internet of Things (IoT) that connects the physical and digital worlds. Although the core topic of any industrial conference might vary, there is always a special focus on the IoT. And the recently concluded World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland was no exception. One of the speakers said that the term Superpowers usually refers to countries that exert the maximum influence and control on global happenings; but that definition seems to be changing. In the digital era, the definition ought to include four extraordinary technological superpowers: mobile technology (provides unmatched connectivity); the cloud (delivers capacity on a wider scale); artificial intelligence (AI) enables mining massive amounts of data in real time; and finally the IoT imperative.
IoT Imperative: Agenda and Sustainability Efforts
Besides presentations on how the IoT has evolved over the last 50 years, its effect on sustainability, and how it has created a technological upheaval, there were panel discussions about cybersecurity and corporate priorities. It is estimated that by 2030, the industrial IoT can add $14 trillion of economic value to the global economy. In September 2015, the UN General Assembly’s 194 countries adopted the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, this includes 17 sustainable development goals (graphic below) which member countries can use to measure progress. Because in layman’s terms, IoT is about measuring and remotely controlling previously unconnected things. It reaches people and objects more efficiently than earlier technologies.
Citing a Case Study
Giving the example of a smart building energy solution deployed in commercial and residential complexes it was shown how the benefits extend beyond mere monetary savings: IoT solution providers benefit from the solutions deployed; the government (state and central) will soon benefit from the collective energy savings, and ultimately society will benefit from the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It was opined that the full potential of IoT as an enabler for sustainable development can be achieved when sustainability is incorporated at the design phase of the IoT projects.
Although the benefits are exponential IoT projects haven’t yet scaled to a large size (defined as affecting at least one million people, involving several industries, and being rolled out across a continent) due to multiple reasons:
- Technical front: Interoperability challenges with equipment and departments slow down scalability
- Commercial front: Budgets for sustainable IoT implementations are currently limited
Breaches in Cybersecurity
The IoT imperative has an unintended downside too; at Davos this was called the “black mirror.” While building IoT products/solutions, the focus has been on the function of the end product and not the security of the architecture it is built on. Cybersecurity is now garnering center-stage attention – and that is how most of us would like it to be. In the 1950s the breach of an industrial control system would have only affected a single plant; today it can have global ramifications.
At the WEF conference recent cyber-attacks were discussed; reading about these made me understand how innovative technologies and increasing connectivity also expose the vulnerabilities and can be weaponized. For instance, the recent global ransomware attack, which affected organizations such as Britain’s National Health Service, showed the scale and physical consequences a cyber-attack might present. Hackers exploited a flaw in “retired” Microsoft software, which is not routinely updated, to infect computers with the WannaCry ransomware. The massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack brought down the Dyn Domain Name System (DNS) service, illustrating the vulnerability of certain platforms (Twitter, Netflix and Facebook) to attacks using the IoT.
Another frightening prospect: Self-driving cars are already being tested and are part of the Internet of Automotive Things (IoAT) - a network of sensors and computer processes expected to reduce accidents caused by human error. Although these will be securely designed with the capacity to patch and update security software, hacking is still a possibility. This could have serious consequences – your car could easily be stolen, your destination/speed could be altered etc.
Standards for cybersecurity need to be enforced; and insurance companies have begun examining the role they can play to protect consumers/companies to create a culture of cybersecurity. Because technology should be a useful tool, not a threat.