The Internet of Everything vs. the Internet of Some Things
The use of devices connected to the Internet is raising business and ethical questions.
- By Fern Halper, Ph.D.
- May 7, 2015
The analyst and analytics-loving part of me gets excited when I hear about the Internet of things (IoT). The IoT is all about a network of connected systems, devices, and sensors that communicate with each other over the Internet. These "things" might be cell phones or wearable devices or components with sensors on machines such as those on oil rigs or in airplanes. It is predicted that there will be tens of billions of these devices connected over the next few years. TDWI sees growing interest by organizations in the IoT. The idea behind it has been around for a while, but the combination of cheap compute, cheap sensors, and more advanced software (among other factors) is making IoTa reality.
Of course, the monitoring and analytics that can be performed on this data is where much of the value lies. Think about preventive maintenance in utilities, for example. The data collected from meters, together with weather and location data, can be used to determine which assets must be fixed before they break. The same principle holds in other industries such as transportation (air and rail), manufacturing, energy, and telecommunications. IoT data is also being used in asset management, store layout, raw materials management -- the list goes on. This is exciting stuff.
The above examples apply to inanimate objects. What happens when IoT intersects with wearable technologies? Two movements are worth noting.
The quantified self: The quantified self is where people collect data about their daily lives. Think fit bits that monitor your steps, calories burned, and sleep patterns. However, it goes well beyond that to medical applications that monitor diabetes, cardiac health, and track asthma incidents. There is even the quantified baby movement. These are useful for self-help, self-knowledge, and self-action. Often these devices send the data to a central control center to be analyzed and the results returned to the device.
The quantified worker/workplace: The quantified worker follows the same principles as the quantified self. Think about sensors that track transport orderlies around hospitals to see how long they spend with each patient, or devices worn by retail store staff to measure where they spend their time or how they move about a store to determine how they should function. Although the use of these devices might be couched differently, it's often about improving employee productivity.
Some people would argue that this is perhaps where the Internet of things should become what I call the Internet of some things. In other words, maybe it doesn't make sense to connect everything. On the one hand, from management's perspective, employees should work to be the most efficient and effective they can be. On the other hand, employees may view this as an invasion of privacy. Some employees may hold the view that they are being treated as assets and not people.
Ultimately, this becomes an ethical argument. How much is too much? How can organizations make sure that quantified worker is not misused and mistreated?
Michael J. Meyer, Santa Clara University professor of philosophy has said, "Employees are autonomous moral agents. Among other things, that means they have independent moral status defined by some set of rights, not the least of which is the right not to be used by others only as a means to increase overall welfare or profits." That is an ethical argument. I asked a group of young people (in their 20s) what they thought about being monitored by wearables at work. The feedback was, "That would be bothersome because people wear wearables to provide them with some type of personal benefit; what is the gain or benefit of this?"
I expect that as time goes on and wearables become more pervasive in the workplace, the ethical arguments will heat up. Management will have a lot of convincing to do, at least in the near term, to get some employees to see the upside. On the other hand, some employees may feel they don't have a choice. For instance, I was talking to a person working on a construction site who said that drones were busy flying around the site monitoring the staff, presumably for "safety" reasons. That also leads to the notion of the wearable class and the non-wearable class in the workplace, and that is another discussion.