Industrial Internet reshapes the “Internet of Things”

In a term coined in 1999, the Internet of Things, relates to a world in which all objects are connected wirelessly to the Internet and therefore to each other. The model requires each device to have RFID or other near field communications technology to communicate, sharing information about the identity, status, activities, and other attributes of the device. Partnered with big data analytics, the information from these devices can paint a robust picture of how objects interact in the world and how people interact with them.

This week, the model was supercharged. According to a report in the New York Times, General Electric hopes to transform this model with what it terms the “Industrial Internet.”

The so-called Industrial Internet involves putting different kinds of sensors, sometimes by the thousands, in machines and the places they work, then remotely monitoring performance to maximize profitability. G.E., one of the world’s biggest makers of equipment for power generation, aviation, health care, and oil and gas extraction, has been one of its biggest promoters. … The executive in charge of the project for G.E. … said that by next year almost all equipment made by the company will have sensors and Big Data software.

Emerging technology allows devices to distribute usage and telemetry data, to receive instructions, to interact with other equipment, and to serve as the communications bridge extending network coverage so that the devices themselves expand the network on which the equipment communicates. The implications are quite interesting.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the development affects critical infrastructure – the fundamental systems operating our water, power, rail, and telecom infrastructure. Properly secured and interactive, the elements of our aging infrastructure could begin to trouble-spot and eventually provide small repairs without the need for 24-hour crews.

GE’s present equipment tends to be large devices, ranging from jet engines to MRI machines. But the concept could well extend to automobiles, bicycles, phones, cameras, and even clothing. Equipped automobiles, for example, could report mechanical efficiency for every system in the car. They could also share vehicle telemetry, providing a real-time map of how each car was driving in relation to every other car driving on the road. The information could be used to alert a driver to road hazards, to dangerous weather conditions, or to the driver’s weaving. The information could alert police to the same conditions and behaviors.

In the workplace, the Industrial Internet will improve atomization, which helps retain U.S. manufacturing but probably at the cost of fewer workers doing more specialized work. It should also be employed to improve worker safety but could easily be adapted to create a workplace in which every movement was tracked. With Industrial Internet name badges, doors would lock and unlock in response to the presence of authorized personnel, but the data analytics would also be able to see which employees spent the most time with which of their peers, and correlate such interactions with post-interaction productivity. Schools could similarly track student movements and behaviors, identifying which resources and faculty were actually utilized and which of those impacted learning outcomes – for better or worse.

Existing rules for workplace and education environments do not take the pervasive nature of the Industrial Internet into account. Assumptions that privacy is a zone around one’s home and person has little relevance to a cloud of data points broadcasting a picture of each person and how that person interacts.

The FTC has taken small steps to explore these issues and regulate obvious abuses, but legislators need to do much more. Absent legislation, current NSA practices will vacuum this data into its Orwellian data trove.

The Industrial Internet promises to translate the Internet of Things into very practical, valuable industrial improvements. Safer planes, smarter cars, more efficient homes all improve people’s lives. Proper regulation will encourage those uses while protecting civil liberties, privacy, and overreach. Perhaps we can craft the policies to avoid the outrage rather than in response to it.