In the 1970’s, a mobile device was a van full of monster-size computer equipment. Today, not only is it an iPhone in your pocket, it is the tiny connected devices on each vine in a vineyard that a wine grower uses to keep track of every aspect of his vineyard.

Computer scientist Vint Cerf, vice president at Google and considered one of the fathers of the Internet, spoke at a Federal Trade Commission workshop about the Internet of Things in Washington, DC on November 19.

He referenced the increasing number of networked appliances in our lives, including:

  • consumer goods (TVs, mobile phones, tablets, picture frames);
  • sensor systems (heating and air conditioning, environmental monitoring, security monitoring);
  • personal medical instruments (insulin pumps, heart monitors);
  • fitness (fitbit mobile app, smart sneakers);
  • remotely controlled devices (garage door openers);
  • “wearables” (Google Glass); and
  • automobiles (OnStar).

Cerf said that all these things are “important for the feedback loop,” because they tell you something about the consequences of your choices and behavior during the day. They can inspire you to change those choices and behaviors, such as exercising more, or using less electricity in your home at certain times of the day.

Google Glass, he said, is an experiment. “It is essentially no different than strapping your phone to your forehead,” except that it is much more convenient. It has a microphone, camera, personal speaker, and a video display and brings a computer into your everyday audio-video environment. He explained the revolutionary impact of Google Glass with a hypothetical scenario of a blind German speaker meeting a deaf English speaker. Google Glass can pick up the German speaker’s speech and presents an English closed-captioning on the display. Then, the deaf English-speaker can respond by signing, which the German guy can’t see, but his Google Glass translates it into German voice so that he can hear it.

“This is not something that is crazy,” Cerf explained, “this is doable.”

Unsuspected applications of the Internet of Things in our world

An Internet-enabled refrigerator? It might have a touch-sensitive panel on the front, allowing the family to do blogs, email and web pages on the front instead of leaving each other post-it notes. RFID chips could tell you what you had inside and give you ready recipes you could cook for dinner. The system could also email you to let you know it is time to throw out the moldy milk, or to get tomato sauce, the one missing ingredient in the fridge for that recipe you had wanted to make for dinner. Connected to the scale in your bathroom, it could start giving you diet-focused recipes when you hit a certain weight.

Picture frames? “Our family picture frames download all our family’s photos every day.” At minimum, you have to carefully police your stored photos so that inappropriate ones don’t end up in the mix.

Surfboards? Cerf shows a picture of someone with an iPad embedded in the top of his surf board. Since he said he got bored waiting for waves all the time, he wanted a way to surf the Internet to help pass the time.

Light bulbs? “I used to joke about every light bulb someday having its own IP address. Now, they do.” And it costs less than 50 cents to add the chip, which makes sense once people are paying so much for fancy CFL bulbs.

Wine cellars? Cerf gets SMS texts from his wine cellar anytime the temperature goes too high. After discovering a bottle or two missing, he thought he should pop an RFID chip in every bottle to make sure they don’t leave without his approval. But he figured he also needed to insert chips in the corks, in case someone drinks it but leaves the bottle behind. At that point, he figured he might as well collect data on the contents of the bottle that could tell you when it is ready to drink.

Beer kegs? He referenced SteadyServ Technologies, a beer keg sensor system that assists in inventory management for bars and restaurants. The company makes a donut-shaped sensor to sit under a keg. With appropriate input on the contents of the keg, it can know how much weight to anticipate and when the beer needs to be refilled.

“Smart Cities,” Cerf said, are an extension of everything else discussed, including:

  • Monitoring and reporting on the status of city services (traffic flow, power outages, water use, gas outage, road repairs, transit problems);
  • Open access to city information to enable new businesses (facilitate third party apps, analysis, planning; scheduling and licensing events; tourism information); and
  • Smart grid programs (feedback to users on power usage; demand response capability; extension to other resource utilization like water or gas).

He suggested that this kind of integrated continuous monitoring presented great potential for improved resource management, improved health and wellness management (as well as early epidemic detection), and the potential for new inventions and products for consumers at a lower cost. His biggest concern was the need for globally-agreed standards to ensure interoperability in a global business environment.

Should the government regulate the Internet of Things?

FTC Commissioner Julie Brill opened the Q&A part of Cerf’s session, asking how the Internet of Things will deepen the digital divide and what should be done to counter it.

 “Physics is with us here,” according to Cerf, “the costs of everything keep coming down.” He feels that any digital divides “will eventually close up.” Scaling, such as in massive open online courses (MOOCs), “helps in many respects.”

When informed that commentators on transformative technologies frequently claim that privacy principles are obsolete, Cerf replied that he would not say that privacy is dead, but “it will be increasingly difficult for us to achieve privacy.” He observed that, “privacy may be an anomaly” in history. He grew up in a small German town where the post master knew everyone’s business. In a town of three thousand people, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. The sense of anonymity built by urbanization and the industrial revolution is relatively new.

Cerf also pointed out that people’s “social behavior” can be quite damaging with regard to privacy” and that “technology has far outraced our social imagination.” Suppose someone takes a picture of you visiting the great pyramid of Giza, but catches Joe in the background by accident. That picture gets posted on Facebook. A social media visitor tags Joe in that picture after recognizing him. Unfortunately, Joe claimed to someone else that he was in London at that exact time. Oops! Now Joe has been outed and he’s in trouble for lying, or worse.

Asked specifically if the government should regulate the Internet of Things, Cerf demurred. “I wouldn’t know how to begin to regulate it.”

“We’re going to have to experience problems before we understand the nature of the problems… or solutions.” The original makers of the Internet of Things didn’t think about potential hazards, but “before we run off to write regulations,” we need to understand the risks. “I’ve often wanted to write a cartoon-level introduction to the Internet” for Congressmen, “a Congressional comic book.” We seem to have Congressmen that want to write a law to double the speed of light because they are dissatisfied with broadband speed, Cerf observed.

“While regulation might be helpful, an awful lot of the problems that we experience with privacy [are] a result of our own behavior.


For the whole MRA series about the workshop on the Internet of Things, see part 1, “The Internet of Things: Connected devices are changing the world for consumers and data users” part 2, “Trust and context in a connected world: what can marketing research tell us?”, part 3, “Vint Cerf and the Internet of Things: "Privacy may be an anomaly", part 4, “Smart Home, Smart Health, Smart Cars: What will inter-connected devices mean for users and data users?” and part 5, "Ubiquitous Data: Privacy and Security in a Connected World."