MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

The Internet of Things: Phenomenal or inevitable?

By MIT Sloan Executive Education's Executive Director, Dr. Peter Hirst

Later this week I am heading to Chicago to participate in the Internet of Things World Forum 2014, an exciting annual event that brings together innovators from business, government, and academia to accelerate the market adoption of the Internet of Things.

The concept of a connected world where smart devices talk to each other without human command is not new. It appears the idea itself was first introduced in the early 2000s by the co-founders of MIT's Auto-ID Lab, Kevin Ashton, who went on to become a serial tech entrepreneur, and my colleague Prof. Sanjay Sarma, who is still teaching at MIT and currently directs MIT’s Office of Digital Learning (the force behind "MITx"). Back then it may have sounded more like a sci-fi plot as technology capabilities weren’t developed enough to make such a thing possible.

Will robots (finally) take over?

A lot has changed since then, with technology cycles becoming faster and faster and new smart devices popping up seemingly every day, but full interconnectedness is yet to become a reality. Yes, there are pockets of adoption in certain industries that have been highly successful--for example, factories where robots build cars; smart supply chains that track items worldwide for just-in-time manufacturing; wearable devices that monitor our vitals; and, of course, cell phones that increasingly become natural extensions of our brains, albeit with some involvement from us. However, these examples could still be seen as cases of early adoption and not quite an illustration of the revolutionary effect this idea is poised to have.

Barriers to adoption

There has been much discussion of why that is. Some point to lack of common industry standards--in both software and hardware--that makes it harder to build a thriving business ecosystem. There is a certain level of marketplace inertia due to the long-term nature of the potential value of adapting new technologies. Take Nest, for example. As slick and cool as the device may be, your regular thermostat could probably achieve the same functions of keeping your home comfortable. And, of course, many are uneasy with potential privacy breaches that may occur when our devices constantly generate data about our movements and life choices. What happens when a self-driving car gets hacked? Or safety-critical devices are compromised? All these concerns are valid and reasonable and need to be addressed before we are able to take advantage of the myriad opportunities presented by the connected world.

Bracing for impact

The Internet of Things World Forum aims to bring these opportunities to the forefront of the general discussion, focusing on business, government, and education. I am thrilled to be part of a breakout session on education titled "IoT and the Impact on Education for the Workforce of the Future: How will IoT Drive Changes in Lifelong Learning." I will be sharing examples and demos of how we use technology at MIT Sloan to make our executive education courses accessible to more participants online while remaining just as engaging as the on-campus experience. 

But as much as I am looking forward to sharing what we do, I am even more excited to meet the thought leaders who are shaping this new space, as the concept continues to gain momentum. The conference is sponsored by Cisco and will gather many bright minds from other leading technology companies like IBM, Intel, and SAS, as well as industrial heavyweights like Shell and Rio Tinto. And the conversation keeps getting bigger! The World Economic Forum in Davos has featured the Internet of Things as one of its major themes. These global meetings and focused attention should help advance common standards internationally and bring the interconnected world (a.k.a. "the Internet of Everything") that much closer to reality.

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