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The Internet of Things

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The Internet of Things, illustration

Since its inauguration in 1966, the ACM A.M. Turing Award has recognized major contributions of lasting importance to computing. Through the years, it has become the most prestigious award in computing. To help celebrate 50 years of the ACM Turing Award and the visionaries who have received it, ACM has launched a campaign called "Panels in Print," which takes the form of a collection of responses from Turing laureates, ACM award recipients and other ACM experts on a given topic or trend.

For our third Panel in Print, we invited 2009 ACM Prize recipient ERIC BREWER, 2004 ACM A.M. Turing Award co-recipient VINT CERF, 2016–2017 Athena Lecturer JENNIFER REXFORD, ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award recipient MARTIN CASADO, ACM Fellows NICK FEAMSTER and JIM KUROSE, and ACM member GEORGE ROUSSOS to discuss the Internet of Things (IoT).

What do you see as some of the biggest transformations that have been brought through the Internet and where do we go next?

ERIC BREWER: The most important transformation brought about by the Internet is the kind of self-empowerment it has caused. If you don’t know something, you can find it out. If you want to educate yourself on something, you can learn it fairly directly. People feel like they can learn anything, in any country now.

NICK FEAMSTER: The early Internet was a network of trusted research universities with very few stakeholders. There was no business aspect to it, there were no profits to be taken, and there was little to no concern over security. The chief goal was connectivity, and the primary challenges were technical in nature.

Today, the situation is much different, with each of the previous points having been turned completely on their head. We see increasing tensions between stakeholders, especially between Internet service providers and content providers on to issues like pricing of Internet access, network neutrality, performance guarantees and quality of experience. We also see tremendous tension in cybersecurity between attackers, businesses and end users.

JENNIFER REXFORD: Recently, the Internet has become an amazing way to collect and analyze data about people and their behavior and the kinds of things they do online. This, in turn, has allowed the information we see on the Internet to be much more customized, like Google search and so on. Which brings us to the current evolution, the connecting of the Internet to the physical world, or Internet of Things. This is where we are actually effecting change in the physical world based on the information that gets collected over networks. .

VINT CERF: Projecting into the future, we can see much higher-speed access to the Net, more wireless access and increasing amounts of artificial intelligence and machine learning adding to our ability to accomplish our objectives. It’s a rich environment we are heading into.

There are reasons to be concerned—for example, about safety, security, privacy, resilience, and robustness. I am particularly concerned about what I’ll call "autonomy," which stems from my concern that you don’t want to have a highly automated house that doesn’t work when it’s not connected to the Internet. So, you need to have local capability independent of or in addition to interactions through the public Internet.

"The most important transformation brought about by the Internet is the kind of self-empowerment it has caused."

There are still more people in the world offline than on. How will connecting these individuals help neglected and underserved communities around the world?

MARTIN CASADO: I agree with the United Nations in the view that connectivity to the Internet is a basic human right. Beyond the intrinsic benefits of better communication within the community, it provides access to the grand marketplace that’s erupted within the Internet. In many ways, that can become a great equalizer. If it costs me less to produce a good or a service, and the distribution cost (in this case the Internet) is the same, then I have an advantage in an open market. Of course, it isn’t as simple as that, but it certainly does inject underserved communities directly into the economic nervous system in which they can participate.

GEORGE ROUSSOS: The two main factors limiting the ability of people to access the Internet are affordability and lack of literacy and language skills. While getting online can provide benefits, connectivity is not a panacea for all ills. Lifting these communities out of poverty and getting the basics right such as access to clean water, vaccinations, or in some cases a less corrupt government, would be a priority. Moreover, joining the connected world as a latecomer involves significant hazards as well as opportunities, so developing the appropriate skills and safeguards is a precondition.

There are already interesting cases highlighting how innovations can be created from the bottom up: for example, through microlending and using the mobile Internet to broaden access to financial services.

JENNIFER REXFORD: I think there is a lot of opportunity to collect data that can help people make better decisions. For example, farmers could determine the going rate for their crops, rather than relying on a third-party intermediary to determine prices. Knowing what the weather is going to be like in a few days to make decisions about farming practices, and so on. That being said, having access to information for education and training and awareness doesn’t replace having access to clean water and very basic needs.

One problem in a lot of the developing world is that much of the Internet traffic is routed back through more developed areas; traffic in South America being routed through Miami, or traffic in Africa going through Amsterdam or London, etc. So there is a missed opportunity to host local content locally. For example, if you’re in Kenya, a local Kenyan website will be hosted outside of Kenya, making it very expensive and slow to get information. What we are starting to see more are efforts to have Internet exchange points in the region so that the multiple network providers within Africa and within South America can directly connect with one another and provide a stable platform for hosting of local content.

For organizations and individuals to be confident when conducting transactions and exchanging information, the Internet has to be secure. How does the IoT impact the security of the Internet?

JIM KUROSE: With an ever-increasing array of devices being connected to the Internet (between 26 billion and 50 billion devices in manufacturing, business, and home applications by 2020, by some predictions), the question of resilience—knowing that a device will continue to perform its tasks safely and securely in the presence of unintended as well as malicious faults—is increasingly important.

VINT CERF: There are technologies that allow people to protect themselves better. Two-factor authentications are a good example of that—the best practice of which is to encrypt everything from the laptop or mobile all the way to the server on the net. All of these are practices we adopt at Google.

NICK FEAMTSER: There are a couple of reasons why IoT raises the stakes as far as the security of the Internet is concerned. An Internet attack may now involve physical inconveniences or threats such as security cameras, door locks, thermostats, etc.

The issue here is that most businesses are fundamentally focused on the market they serve. In other words, a hardware company is just a hardware company, a consumer electronics company is just a consumer electronics company. They are not thinking about the security of the software they put on the devices they sell. So it won’t be long until we have an abundance of fundamentally unpatchable, insecure, and difficult if not impossible-to-patch devices affecting nearly every aspect of our daily lives. It’s a perfect storm.

ERIC BREWER: Even though "less-connected devices" sounds paradoxical in today’s scenario, I believe it’s an option. As an example, if a device has to connect through the user’s phone or home laptop or computer, maybe that is a bit safer because then, at least, the gateway could be secured. Another option is to stop making these devices so flexible. They are really just doing one kind of reporting, and all the rest of the data is in the cloud. It’s more plausible that you could make that secure.

What makes security hard is if you are trying to have a lot of flexibility in the device, or complexity, or if you’re trying to change what the device is doing over time, and that’s why you’re having upgrades. All this makes it much more like a phone and then it really needs to have a more automated form of security patching.

What are the possibilities, and repercussions, of IoT capabilities such as smart cities and connected cars?

MARTIN CASADO: There are obvious answers here around energy efficiency, traffic, safety, etc. But I feel that those are already easy to see from where we are today. So perhaps I will take a bit of a longer view and say that in the limit IoT could very well make the notion of a city anachronistic. Cities are largely products of organic growth and physical constraints; close enough for protection and commerce, and far enough away for privacy and access to resources. However, IoT changes these constraints. Drones can deliver goods without requiring traditional roads or supply routes. Advances in connected and urban farming can allow sustainability just about anywhere. And the Internet provides a social overlay that is independent of geography. We are heading toward a future where cities are more defined by common interests than by geography.

What do you think are some of the potentially most exciting/important applications of IoT beyond the ones already being actively developed?

JIM KUROSE: It’s difficult to predict future Internet applications. But I’ll make one prediction. I believe education and skill acquisition have yet to be truly disrupted by the Internet, or by interactive and/or virtual reality/augmented reality technologies. As a long-time teacher (and learner), I don’t think there is anything as good as learning with inspired and engaged teachers and students, using interactive learning and team-based activities in the classroom. But that approach is neither uniformly affordable nor scalable. So I do believe a next generation of interactive software/textbooks/classes is increasingly important to meet the pace and need for training, skills updating, and acquiring new fundamentals.

GEORGE ROUSSOS: One specific way that I hope the IoT can bring about change is by shifting the emphasis away from our current predominantly visual mode of interaction with information, which I consider to be the key ingredient enabling a sedentary and passive contemporary lifestyle. IoT technologies afford interactions engaging the whole body through touch, proprioception, equilibrioception, interoception, and perhaps a few new artificial senses that can hopefully rebalance the focus on the brain as the only locus of intelligence.

In particular, my hope is that the IoT will play a key role toward improving the health and the sustainability of the planet: overconsumption of raw materials, pollution from fossil fuels, and industrialized farming, the destruction of forests and numerous other effects of modernity are setting massive challenges ahead. I believe the IoT has to play a central role in addressing these challenges and ensuring the welfare of future generations.

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