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The Internet of Things: Roadmap to a Connected World

The rapidly increasing number of interconnected devices and systems today brings both benefits and concerns. In this column and a new MIT Professional Education class, the head of MIT’s open and digital learning efforts discusses how to successfully navigate the IoT.

What if every vehicle, home appliance, heating system and light switch were connected to the Internet? Today, that’s not such a stretch of the imagination.

Modern cars, for instance, already have hundreds of sensors and multiple computers connected over an internal network. And that’s just one example of the 6.4 billion connected “things” in use worldwide this year, according to research by Gartner Inc. DHL and Cisco Systems offer even higher estimates—their 2015 Trend Report sets the current number of connected devices at about 15 billion, amidst industry expectations that the tally will increase to 50 billion by 2020.

The Internet of Things (IoT)—a sophisticated network of objects embedded with electronic systems that enable them to collect and exchange data—is disrupting technology and changing the way we live. Fewer than two decades ago, if I’d predicted that the IoT would transform the auto-rental industry, people would have laughed. Yet here we are now in the age of Zipcar. By pioneering a range of connected technologies, the car-sharing company has unlocked greater convenience for customers and kick-started the sharing economy. Now the functionality of IoT-enabled cars is transforming the auto industry—from the ultra-connected Tesla to Google’s self-driving cars—and Uber hopes one day to chauffeur you to your destination in an autonomous vehicle.


The IoT is ultimately bound to affect almost every aspect of daily life. In fact, I encourage you to try to figure out where the IoT will not be. But how “smart” is it to let the IoT pervade everything in our lives, without active and purposeful design?

The IoT: Then and Now

About 18 years ago, as a mechanical engineering professor at MIT, I worked with my colleagues to launch the research effort that laid some of the groundwork for the IoT. In those early days, our goals were to help implement the radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems that would become integral to connected devices, and to work on developing a standard for data from those devices. At that time, we were excited by the potential for a world of networked things. Since then, the IoT has expanded into many corners of society and industry, but I’ve become increasingly concerned about its security implications.

I will address such concerns in my new MIT Professional Education online course, Internet of Things: Roadmap to a Connected World. While we’ll focus on the future of IoT and its business potential, we’ll also tackle its significant challenges, which range from security, privacy, and authenticity issues to the desirable features of a distributed architecture for a network of things.

The IoT’s underlying challenge is that there are no clear and agreed-upon architectures for building connected systems. Your light switch may have one level of data-security encryption, while your TV remote control has another. Wireless protocols may differ, too: One device might use ZigBee while others rely on Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Bridges to connect across all these options will proliferate. And even if independent systems are secure, we will have to cobble them together—and the resulting chain will only be as strong as the weakest link.

Controlling the Chaos

By creating new procedures, standards, and best practices, we can bring order to the disorder the IoT generates. As the IoT grows, we should focus on three primary issues: 

1. Agreement on system architecture. Today, the IoT is an abstract collection of uses and products. It’s imperative that we establish paradigms for effective implementation and use.

2. Development of open standards reflecting the best architectural choices. Standards for communication between connected things do exist. But there are simply too many standards, each serving a different purpose. The result: a series of silos. For instance, think about how the blood oxygen sensor on a patient’s finger can be affected by what’s happening with the blood pressure monitor on his or her arm. Neither device is necessarily designed to share data.

Open standards, rather than a series of private ones, are necessary to facilitate genuine interconnectedness. But the deeper question is how and why we need to make these             connections, as well as how to extract value from them. This is where cloud computing comes in. Perhaps instead of having the sensors talk to each other directly, they need to talk in the cloud. (I’ll discuss this more in our online course.)

3. Creation of a “test bed” where best practices can be designed and perfected. While the first two needs are best handled by industry, the test bed platform is best created by the government. Remember that the current Internet would not have existed without the early leadership of the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency (now called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.) Today, the government could create a similar agency to incubate academic institutions, labs, and companies testing and working on best practices for the IoT.

 A ‘Smarter’ Future  

No question about it: The IoT will influence everything from robots and retail to buildings and banking. To leverage the power of the IoT responsibly and profitably, you need to develop and implement your own IoT technologies, solutions, and applications. Learn how in my new online MIT Professional Education course, Internet of Things: Roadmap to a Connected World, which begins on April 12, 2016. This six-week course is designed to help you better understand the IoT—and, ultimately, harness its power. 



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