Who wins the Internet of Things? What company or demographic benefits most from the web of 30-odd billion devices that sit on dinner tables and cling to aircraft wings?
What Are the Stakes?
Before we attempt an answer, let’s consider the stakes. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote that humans might be sensory organs through which a God perceives the world. Each human is independent, but we also contribute to a collective consciousness—like bees in a hive. Connected devices are independent, but together they could serve as global sensor-organs comprising a vast digital organism. The question of who wins IoT could be a question of who controls this near-omniscient creature. And if so, how powerful could this new digital organism become?
By 2025 the world will have 86 billion devices. A near tripling in the device web likely isn’t shocking given the endless commentary on the exponential growth in computing power (doubling every two years per Moore’s Law). But consider that humans have 86 billion neurons, while dolphins have 36 billion. Intelligence’s correlation with neuron count is weak. Still, something special happens when 86 billion neurons connect in a so-far inscrutable pattern to produce a self-aware mind capable of abstract thinking and writing articles like this one. Nothing against dolphins, they are famous for their mimicking and complex range of emotion, but they are way dumber than humans.
Right now the Internet of Things is more dolphin than human. Connections are disparate and clunky, and connecting devices does not create automatic value like connecting people. Intelligence has to be connected for the conjoining to add value. But IoT is becoming more intelligent by the day.
Who Controls IoT?
Edge Computing—where Moore’s law empowers each IoT sensor with the computing power to make artificially intelligent decisions without relying on a central cloud hub—creates this intelligence. In the words of Stan Lee, with great power, comes great responsibility. So we return to the question: Who controls IoT? In a world with billions of devices, each equipped with on-the-edge intelligence, the answer to this question concerns humanity’s future.
IoT is notoriously fractured. Countless use cases require domain expertise. As a result, there is no analogous winner take all to the internet, especially where network effects anointed masters in search (Google) and social (Facebook) exist. According to Statista, at the end of 2019, there were 620 IoT platforms, including tech behemoths Microsoft and Amazon. Amazon controls a vast swath of the consumer IoT market: with several hundred million sold, there’s a good chance you own an Alexa device or a Ring doorbell camera (or both). But even Amazon only controls a tiny fraction of IoT. And a collective device intelligence vastly greater than the sum of its parts is disrupted by this fractured landscape.
A central problem with IoT’s current architecture is that users are forced to trust platforms, making consumers—whether they are Alexa users or corporate customers—wary of privacy violations and the potential abuse of their data for advertising anti-competitive purposes. IBM published a report in 2014 called “Device Democracy” calling for a decentralized IoT solution supporting trustless peer-to-peer messaging, secure distributed data sharing, and a robust and scalable form of device coordination. It calls for blockchain to verify transactions, register devices, authenticate users, and broker trustless device consensus.
An Internet of Trusted Things needs to be built private-by-design with peer-to-peer, blockchain-based device identity, and coordination built-in. Once each device is de-coupled from a central authority, broad, decentralized coordination becomes possible. The Internet of Trusted Things looks like the vast intelligence we introduced at the beginning of this article.
A central authority owning the IoT is a horribly dystopian idea, and the current fractured landscape represents a defense mechanism against this future. If we are to achieve a unified IoT, there is only be one answer to the question, “who owns this new digital organism?” And it is the same answer to the question of “who wins the IoT.” The answer is: you do.