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Ready to Automate Your Life? A Consumer's Guide to the Internet of Things

02/24/2015 04:09 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

Depending on how much of a gadget geek you are, it's likely that the Internet of Things (IoT) has already made its way into your life. You're adjusting your home's thermostat from your smartphone while riding the commuter train home. You're finding lost devices in your apartment or locating open parking spaces across the city with connected devices. You're tracking your exercise activity and vital signs throughout the day or monitoring your baby while she sleeps in her crib down the hall. As more and more devices connect sensors and applications to cloud servers and the Internet, the idea of an Internet of "things" is evolving from once disconnected puzzle pieces into a cohesive, mainstream way of automating our lives. The IoT is maturing, and it's not just for early adopters anymore. Increasingly, average consumers are finding that the convergence of applications, the IoT and the cloud are making life more convenient and potentially safer.

Valuable applications: now tied into a device near you

Thus far, the market has described mainstream IoT services in terms of sensors and monitoring. These descriptions include some degree of autonomous actions that help consumers, but the emphasis has been on how these services feed information into cloud data centers for storage and analysis. Now, we're seeing solutions that are smarter, more sophisticated and more likely to make their way into consumers' lives. Here are a few examples of applications with the power to automate your essential tasks:

  • Need to make sure an elderly parent gets her daily dose of an important medication? You can set the specifications for an Internet-connected medical device to deliver the right dose automatically.
  • Your home alarm system can do a lot more than just alert a security company when your front door is opened without a passcode. Smarter applications can also close and lock any potential exit paths intruders might hope to use after they grab your jewelry box and flat-screen TV. If they do manage to escape with your loot, facial recognition capabilities in these applications can match intruders to their criminal records.
  • Other services can track vehicle movements (think parental surveillance of young drivers), allow insurance companies to assess driver behavior to shape premiums, or call for help in case of emergency.

These communications between applications, the Internet or cloud and your devices happen nearly instantly. You set the rules for how these applications behave, but you don't have to babysit them once you establish those rules. As our "things" become more intelligent, they'll build in predictive actions and maintenance, as well.

Service, convenience without the price of privacy loss

More of the necessities and niceties we once thought of as products are becoming services thanks to these connections. Increasingly multi-agent systems link numerous elements together, de-emphasizing the Internet-connected things that first drew the market's attention in favor of connected services that are far more meaningful to consumers' daily lives. This "Internet of agents" can find you a ride (think Uber), an outfit (think Rent the Runway) or a meal (think GrubHub). Agent-driven services rely on traditional service industry approaches in combination with connectedness, location awareness and your devices.

There's a lot of infrastructure working behind the scenes to make all these applications possible and profitable for the companies that want to serve you. That technology is facilitating the exchange and correlation of data, but is it secure? Is your sensitive data protected in an IoT world?

As all these sensors continue to talk to one another and over time do so through open architectures and open standards, consumers are wisely asking these and other questions about whether their credit card numbers, addresses, medical histories and other information will stay safe. IoT can present a variety of potential security risks that could be exploited by enabling unauthorized access and misuse of personal information; facilitating attacks on other systems; or even creating risks to personal safety. And privacy risks increase from the collection of personal information, habits, locations and physical conditions over time.

The IoT opportunity is one of which many companies want to take advantage, and they know that to earn customer trust means acting responsibly in developing reasonable security measures for IoT products. Security has to be built into devices and best practices will need to be in place to perform security risk assessments. In addition, companies will need to have a process and policy for minimizing the amount and type of data collected and retained. The big debate will be between the measures companies take to limit the data they collect and retain and when to dispose of it, given their natural desire to mine it for new services. Data practices will need to be weighed against the needs of the business. We will also see more opt in and out consent to collect additional categories of data from consumers.

Your automated, connected future

Internet-connected services will move beyond the boundaries of the non-connected services from which they've grown. We'll see services repositioned, resold or rebundled with complementary functions or applications that your service providers want you to try. Every agent in this automated future has the potential to work with any other agent, so we'll no doubt see scores of service combinations that never existed before. As companies learn how to build on these capabilities and deliver them in more compelling ways, your ability to easily automate your life will only expand.