Cartoon: boss is fired by smartphone

The Dark Side of Big Data and the Internet of Things

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

Business leaders and journalists are all hyping Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) as the next big THINGs and the two technologies combined will be an even bigger next big THING. Go to any venture capitalist with a business idea that incorporates both big data and the Internet of things, and she will immediately hand you several sacks full of US dollars with no questions asked. Meanwhile, any business that does not plan to use big data by the end of the year might as well apply for bankruptcy now − or so the trendy pundits would have us believe.

It's all very exciting stuff, with one minor caveat: big data and the Internet of things could fire most of the workforce, inundate your every waking moment with obnoxious advertising and make any notion of privacy a dream of the distant past; a dream, incidentally, which the Internet of things will monitor and big data will remember forever. Other than that, though, these new technologies have a lot going for them.

Some Definitions

Just in case you are one of the few people not familiar with big data and the Internet of things, or you are one of a larger group of people who bandies these terms about, without really knowing what they mean, we should start with basic definitions. Big data is precisely what it sounds like, a massive collection of information stored on innumerable interconnected databases. Businesses and governments have been collecting data on you and me for ages. Only recently, however, has computing processing become powerful enough and cheap enough to collate the information from multiple databases, dig deep into that data and discover trends and connections that can be exploited. When you buy something on Amazon and then get recommendations of other products you might like, that is an example of big data at work. By sorting through loads of customer purchase data, Amazon's computers can work out what else you are probably keen on buying and suggest it to you − all within milliseconds.

Exploitation of big data need not be commercial. Google discovered a while back that it could predict viral outbreaks based on the frequency of searches of particular symptoms. For example, if people in Estonia, Eastern Finland and Northern Latvia start googling "dead people trying to eat my brains" (in their native languages, of course), it would suggest that an outbreak of some kind of zombie virus has occurred in Estonia and is spreading. If queries increase in the rest of Finland and into the Nordic countries faster than elsewhere, it becomes clear how the outbreak is spreading. Needless-to-say, anticipating and projecting viral outbreaks in advance is a good thing.

With more and more activities happening on-line and being recorded on-line, big data just gets bigger and bigger. Fortunately, processor power is keeping up with the data.

the Internet of things is about putting small chips, that can connect to the internet and exchange information, into all kinds of things, even very small things. Soon, if you cannot find your car keys (which connect to the Internet of things), you can just ask your telephone where you left them. The phone will do a quick search of the house and tell you that you left them in the refrigerator. And, if you cannot find your telephone, you'll be able to ask the refrigerator where you left it.

Your watch will be able check your health and give you daily reports. If you are showing signs of being ill, it can send you a message and even make a report for your doctor. It could even check your medicine cabinet, inform you that you are out of stomach cramp medicine and order a packet from your local chemist.

All of that will, of course, be recorded by big data. Your chemist, for instance, might be able to tap into big data to project health problems in the neighbourhood, enabling them to stock up appropriately.

That all seems fine and dandy, does it not? Yes, but there is a dark side and it is one we should worry about before it is too late. I have a few concerns.

Making Employees Obsolete

Business managers love big data because it helps them make informed decisions. A product manager can collect all kinds of data about her product, customers, the competitors' products, what people are saying about her products on Facebook and more. Specialised software can analyse that data and make recommendations which the product manager can use to make decisions.

Most managers like this a lot because they do not like making bad decisions. So, if big data says that "this is a great suggestion that is projected to improve sales by 4.2% over the coming years," that makes managers happy.

The thing is, the human decision maker is pretty much not need in that scenario, is she? Soon, big data will make a decision and the the Internet of things will make it happen. One of the early decisions will doubtless be to fire the product manager as obsolete and, if she does not leave quietly, her office chair, which is connected to the Internet of things, will whisk her out the back entrance.

Analysing data, making decisions and managing people is the bulk of what most business managers do. Big data will be able to take care of the first two points and firing the workforce will take care of the second

What about the other tasks that need to be performed in a business? Frankly, the Internet of things together with artificial intelligence (AI), robots, drones and driverless vehicles will pretty much allow factories to take orders, manufacture things (connected to the Internet of things) and deliver those things. Human beings will not be needed. All but the most expert of services can also be provided by technology, maybe not today, but soon. Very soon.

Advertising Deluge

If you think the Internet is overrun with advertising now, just wait until the the Internet of things makes the whole world your web browser.

People have become accustomed to getting the wealth of Internet based connectivity, information and human interaction for free. However, the providers of that connectivity, information and human interaction want to be paid for their work and the only way they've figured out for getting any kind of income is to sell advertising. From a business perspective, Google and Facebook are the world's biggest advertising companies.

As the Internet expands beyond the web browser and computer interface to connect to just about everything which, in turn, is connected to big data, the world around you will become an advertising platform. Walk past a clothing shop in a mall and one of the mannequins will inform you that "your dress is two years out of date, doesn't match your shoes and reveals more cleavage than is really appropriate for someone with your bra size; so why don't you come inside and we'll provide a perfectly fitted new dress, matching shoes and undergarments all for 20% off the usual low prices. But be quick, this offer is only valid for 30 seconds."

To make matters worse, bright sparks will develop apps to get rid of the advertising. But since the providers of the Internet of things need to advertise to stay in business, they will find ever sneakier and more subversive ways to get their advertising into your brain. One day, probably, they'll just beam advertisements directly into our heads.

End of Privacy

The notion of personal privacy today is a very different thing to ten years ago and completely different to what it was 20 years ago. Even people who turn off their telephones and computers will still be monitored by the Internet of things and their actions recorded in big data. In another decade, you will not be able to do anything or go anywhere without your actions being noted and saved by big data. Discretely pick your nose in a supermarket and the shopping basket will tell you that Kleenex facial tissues are on sale. Sell your old fridge for cash and your tax authorities will note the transaction and take their cut. Decide to stop wearing a helmet while bicycling and your insurance rates go up. Flirt with someone at a conference and get three emails from divorce attorneys recommending you prepare for separation now.

In short, business and government will be able to monitor every move you make. The only positive side to this is that for the most part, no human being will even look at this data about you. Computers will merely process it, store it in big data and exploit it when useful, such as delivering advertising or ensuring you comply with laws.

Of course, if you become a person of interest, that could change.


Ever faster processors crunching and interpreting big data and then using that big data to communicate and guide things within the Internet of things will soon take on a complexity few people will be able to grasp. On one hand, that won't matter. Technology will pretty much take care of itself and, hopefully, it will serve us people. On the other hand, do we really want to let technology take care of itself? And what if we as a race or as individuals do not like the decisions that technology makes?

The truth is, we are pretty much stuck with it. Neither big data nor the Internet of things is going away. Indeed, thanks to progress in artificial intelligence, driverless vehicles, drones and similar technologies, both big data and the Internet of things are growing stronger. It is a world that seems strange to you and me, but it is the world of our children. I don't know about yours, but I'm pretty confident mine will make the best of it.

What do you think?



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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