The U.S. government believes the Internet of Things (IoT) has enormous economic potential across all industries. Its machine-to-machine technologies can reduce automobile-related injuries, usher in an era of precise weather forecasting and automate all types of processes.
But what impact will IoT have on jobs? Will it create more than it destroys? And what happens to all the data devices generate?
With those kinds of issues at stake, the U.S. Department of Commerce is now seeking public comment on the "benefits, challenges and potential roles for the government in fostering the advancement of the Internet of Things." There are 28 questions, and multiple sub-parts to some questions. It's a long list.
The Commerce Department began accepting comments Friday, opening a comment period that lasts until 5 p.m. ET on May 23. The government plans to make the responses -- likely to run into the thousands -- public, resulting in the nation's single largest knowledge dump about the future of technology and where Americans think it should go.
The focus on IoT is deceptively broad. Any IoT discussion will likely bring in all its related technologies processes: Robotics, automation on every level, widespread use of artificial intelligence tools, and the collection of incalculable amounts of data about every aspect of life.
In sum, the government wants to know how the IoT will impact life, job, security and privacy.
Many of the questions are broad, such as:
- Are the challenges and opportunities arising from IoT similar to those that governments and societies have previously addressed with existing technologies, or are they different, and if so, how?
- What are the most significant new opportunities and/or benefits created by IoT, be they technological, policy, or economic?
- And what technological issues may hinder the development of IoT, if any?
The government's goal is to map out its policy role, including research, economic development, standards and security and privacy.
The U.S. can influence standards, set rules on security and the privacy of data and influence the market through its purchasing power. "It would be good to have a clear policy on IoT from one of the biggest buying centers in the world," said Alfonso Velosa, an analyst at Gartner.
Data ownership is another problem waiting to be solved. For instance, a carmaker sells vehicles to a car rental firm. The connected vehicles today can send information back to the auto maker, which may use it for vehicle maintenance. But that data is valuable for competitive and monetary reasons. This is data a car maker could sell to another party, perhaps an insurer. Should it be allowed to?
"Right now we don't have any rules about how that data is managed," said Velosa. The government can also help set standards and rules governing security at the device, communications and cloud level.
Some of the security rules the government needs to set are obvious, particularly around the ability devices to spy on people, said Frank Gillett, an analyst at Forrester.
But the government needs to think about security and privacy rules now because they "are hard to undo later," said Gillett.
Joshua New, a policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation, a Washington-based research group, said there are already bipartisan efforts in Congress to try to develop a national IoT plan.
Indeed, in January, Reps. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), launched the Congressional Caucus on the Internet of Things. It has two broad goals: to educate lawmakers about IoT and develop a policy role. In the Senate, lawmakers have their own bill, the DIGIT Act (Developing Innovation and Growing the Internet of Things), which would create a national working group to develop IoT policy recommendations.
There is a lot the government can do, said New. For instance, it can bring together cities, public transit agencies and tech firms and help broker agreements on deploying IoT-based technologies. This government involvement could create markets for vendors, encouraging research and investment, he said.
The government will take the public comment data and issue a "green paper," which is the name for a tentative government report, not an official statement of policy. (That will come in a subsequent "white paper.")
While this is a big project to undertake in the remaining months of Obama administration, considering the bipartisan IoT activities in Congress and widespread interest in the area, "this issue is here to stay," said New.