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Internet of ThingsMy refrigerator sent me a text message this morning reminding me to stop on the way home and pick up some bread and milk. It knows my habits and monitors my refrigerator use. I noticed that my car updated my Outlook calendar to schedule some maintenance work. It coordinated the appointment with my calendar and the car dealer. Anticipating the need for some parts, it took the liberty of ordering them from the parts dealer, charged them to my credit card and arranged for delivery at the car dealership in time for the scheduled maintenance.  While I was checking my schedule, I also made an inquiry to Amazon about a book I’d ordered. The book reported that it was currently on a truck along Interstate 80, just passing Chicago, and should be delivered by Tuesday.

These near-term imagined actions are elements of the rapidly emerging Internet of Things – recognition of the fact that one of the most rapidly growing parts of the Internet is the connection of mobile computer/sensor/communications devices implanted into everyday objects ranging from automobiles and trucks, to appliances, to packages. In effect, previously “inanimate” objects are becoming self-aware of their location, state, and anticipated needs. These objects can communicate their status to other computers and systems and interact with semi-autonomy with other devices.

As you may recall, in my previous blog on strategic planning for the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), I identified the Internet of Things is as one of the major trends that will impact our lives and the future directions of IST. The IEEE Society cited the Internet of Things as one of its top 13 technology trends of 2013 and devoted a special issue on the topic: The Internet of Things: The Next Technological Revolution. They speculate that by the year 2020, up to 100 billion uniquely identifiable objects will be connected to the Internet and argue that “human understanding of the underlying technologies has not kept pace.” They further suggest that, “This creates a fundamental challenge to researchers, with enormous technical, socioeconomic, political, and even spiritual consequences.”

In a column in Sunday’s New York Times, “When Complexity is Free,” Thomas Friedman (author of The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, 2005) writes enthusiastically about this concept as he believes it will provide unparalleled opportunities for the United States and have a major impact on our work force. In the article, Friedman cites research being conducted in laboratories such as General Electric’s center in New York. Friedman cites GE’s concept of an “Industrial Internet,” where, for example, sensors linked with computers on-board aircraft could monitor the mechanical state of the aircraft and accurately predict when it will need maintenance, thus reducing unnecessary maintenance costs, improving reliability, and providing new business opportunities for the company.

In the College of Information Sciences and Technology, we have many researchers who are actively involved in this coming revolution.  Among them is Dr. Chao Chu. Dr. Chu conducts research on many aspects of the Internet of Things including intelligent technologies (e.g., expert systems, machine learning), network systems, cyber and wireless security, and other areas. He has established the RF-ID laboratory in the IST building, which conducts experiments in linking devices by wireless communication and exploring issues in network security and device autonomy. Dr. Chu has lectured internationally on the topic of the Internet of Things and is a recognized leader in developing and exploring new concepts. Other faculty in IST are exploring related areas such as machine learning, intelligent agents, complex event processing, dynamic resource allocation, and human-machine interaction. The Penn State Applied Research Laboratory has also conducted extensive research in the area of condition-based or predictive diagnostics and is conducting ongoing research for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps related to military operations.

The emergence of the Internet of Things highlights the relevance of IST research and education. We can no longer view the Internet as simply a connective web that links computers and computer users (although that in itself is a significant area that impacts society, business, human interaction, and many other areas). Now, we must begin to view the Internet as an evolving globally connected intelligent entity, linking smart homes, devices, computers, humans, and even animals.

Our research and education must keep pace with the multiple opportunities and challenges. New questions emerge that we could not have imagined even a few years ago: How much intelligence and autonomy should we allow automobiles, trains, homes, and electric power plants to have? How much influence can and should we allow these “devices” to have over humans (e.g., should I let my car use my credit card)? If a device makes an error (e.g., a self-driving car is involved in an accident), who’s liable or at fault – the programmer, the manufacturer, or the human driver who didn’t or couldn’t intervene? What are the security risks of interconnected self-aware devices? How should intelligent devices interact with humans (how “subservient” should our devices be)? Finally, how will the Internet of Things affect entire businesses and business sectors?

These challenges will provide fruit for thought and abundant research and education opportunities in the coming years. In the meantime, my car is calling – it’s overdrawn my credit card and wants me to raise its limit.

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