As William Gibson once said; “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”. This is true of the geographic distribution of new technologies, and it is also true of the distribution new technologies across devices. In this case, sensors and connectivity are already in electronic portable devices such as smartphones and tablets, but we are about to see wide distribution across every object, fabric and machine. The next technological revolution will connect the world, quantifying the environment and sharing that data in vast databases. The mattress will know when a body is present, clothing will know when it needs to be washed, and the lights will know when to dim, and the shoe will know what direction to walk. Sensors are now small and cheap enough for this world to be a reality. The natural world is about to be quantified, automated and made more efficient.
Beyond quantifying the external environment, we are beginning to also quantify the human body. We are likely to see huge growth in the smart wristband market as Apple enters and costs of the device decrease. Companies like OMSignal are manufacturing smart clothing and Google and Novartis are working to develop smart contact lenses. Across the board we are seeing the trend of collecting health data such as heart rate and respiratory rate, to glucose levels and galvanic skin response.
The benefits to the individual will be unparalleled; the ability to track and understand their own body and health, as well as share this data with family members, medical professionals and health researchers. For society this offers a unique ability to run clinical trials on a scale never before possible, data is collected and consolidated from millions of individuals, researchers can identify new patterns, new causes, and treatment effectiveness far cheaper and quicker than ever before. All of this has the potential to provide predictive care saving millions of lives every year.
The currency of this new era is data. Data from mattresses, data from thermostats, data from fridges, if it is connected then it will be valuable. Service providers will use the data to integrate with other sets such as browsing history, app permissions, location, and camera roll providing personalized services and tailored ads.
Existing data-driven services have business models that require the collection and storage of vast amounts of personal data. They get this data for free. To charge more to advertisers Facebook, Google, and Twitter need as much data as possible to serve up more relevant ads. Up until now they have had to rely on basic information to tailor ads — search history, friends, browsing habits, etc — in an IoT world, fridge inventory, wake-up times, washing habits, are all extremely valuable signals to feed their machine learning algorithms. As things stand, they will get this data for free.
As we begin to quantify the physical world, data ownership will become the biggest issue for individuals, companies, and governments. People feel uncomfortable sharing home or health data as this is regarded as more sensitive than digital data. The creators of the data and the users of the data have differing incentives — share less vs. collect more.
The solution to the data privacy challenge will touch almost every business to consumer industry. It is unlikely that ad-supported business models will collapse; they will instead have to become more sensitive to individuals rights and prioritise trust over a land-grab. Individuals will share pretty much all data with trusted service providers as long as the value created is perceived as greater than the cost of sharing the data. Trust is competitive advantage.
Another solution is to create a marketplace for data, bringing together creators of the data (sellers) together with data service providers (buyers). Handshake is a UK-based company that is attempting to do just this. By putting a value on the individual’s personal data, the incentive to give it away for free to Google and Facebook is removed. Some individuals will decide that the value of the internet service provider’s product — instant access to the world’s information, instant connection with all your friends, ability to automatically order groceries — is worth access to their data.
Each individual and family must understand the trade off between sharing data and the privacy implications. It is the most important civic challenges of the digital age; a failure to communicate the loss of privacy associated with new health, home and city services in the internet of things era is to sleepwalk into a world where privacy is completely dead.