We’ve been talking about the Internet of Things all wrong

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the next wave of technology, connecting some 50 billion devices, with the potential to unleash significant economic growth across the country and the world.  But in Washington, D.C., the concept of the Internet of Things has yet to really win hearts and minds. 

At the Center for Advanced Technology & Innovation, we wondered why?  That’s why we recently undertook a research initiative -- partnering with Zogby Analytics -- to determine whether there’s a baseline understanding of the products and the economic opportunity. The results were surprising.

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It turns out that the understanding of the Internet of Things as a concept or term of art here in Washington is sketchy at best.  Even people close to the policymaking process had a difficult time explaining what it means, and the vast majority of people that we spoke to had never heard of it at all.  Other concepts often thrown around – such as Big Data, the Internet of Everything, and the Industrial Internet – are even less well understood.  Whatever way you slice it, the Internet of Things as a concept elicited either a blank stare, or neutral to negative reaction.   

Interestingly, those very same people said that they absolutely can’t live without the Internet, so it’s important to link emerging technologies like the IoT to the Internet that we all know and (mostly) love.

Despite the lack of understanding of the IoT as a concept, there is in fact a reasonable familiarity with specific IoT products, devices, and services.  The people that we spoke with use many consumer applications that we see every day -- like FitBits, Apple Watches, Next Thermostats and similar products.  There is also a decent amount of understanding of some of the health and safety applications such as precision medicine, connected cars, and home health care monitoring.

Additionally, it turns out that how we discuss efforts to ensure privacy and security is critically important.  When these concerns are minimized or brushed aside, the people we spoke with responded quite negatively.  Yet, when these concerns are taken seriously, people felt much better about it.  Even if didn’t eliminate concerns entirely or even much at all, the people we spoke with felt like they were being leveled with.  Straight talk is a fundamental part of keeping trust with this audience. 

So what can we take away from this experience?

The technology world has to do a much better job of educating policymakers, their staffs and the broader policy community about the IoT. 

Yet, this isn’t accomplished by discussing speeds and feeds; or huge numbers about the potential for job creation and economic growth.   This is a part of the story, but its secondary to describing the very real ways that these technologies help real people.  

We’ve got to tell this story in a very human way.  We’ve got to answer these fundamental questions:  How does IoT technologies affect me and my community?  How does it affect outcomes:  improving health care, saving lives and preventing accidents, bringing manufacturing home or transforming agriculture?   

Additionally, we have to acknowledge the very real security and privacy threats that exist today. Instead of brushing them aside, we should bring people together to discuss what companies and organizations are doing to combat them.  The threats are dynamic and moving quickly, so we’ve got to share best practices, virtually in real time. 

Over the course of the next year, the Center for Advanced Technology & Innovation will be working to bridge the IoT gap between the technology industry and Capitol Hill.  We will find the stories that matter, so our leaders understand how these technologies are changing lives and transforming the world around us.  And we will communicate the ways in which companies are already securing privacy and security.  No doubt, we will link these anecdotes and stories to the larger economic opportunity, but we will first put the IoT in the context of the impact on the everyday lives of real people.

The future of the Internet is bright.  We hope that you will join us in sharing how the IoT will harness the power of information technology to change the world around us. 

Eversole is president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Advanced Technology & Innovation.

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