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Mr. Sebastian Webel


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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation

Internet of Things

Plugging the Internet into the Physical World

Professor Elgar Fleisch is a Director at the Institute of Technology Management at the University of St. Gallen and also holds the Chair for Information and Technology Management at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich).

For Prof. Elgar Fleisch, the Internet of Things is not just another innovation. He believes it is the next wave of innovation that will transform our world to an astonishing degree. This transformation will make every area of our lives seem more natural.

What will the world be like when the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes a reality? How will the way we communicate change — and the way we manufacture goods?

Fleisch: The IoT will mark the third wave of innovation — the first two were the Ethernet and the Internet. However, it’s extremely difficult to predict what types of applications it will result in. We can predict technologies but not the success of an application. That was the case with the Internet as well. Virtually nothing that has come out of it — like social networks, for example — was predicted by anyone. I am sure, however, that the IoT will make the world appear more natural again. Computers will disappear and computer intelligence will make its way into objects. The smartphone will be the computer of the future. Because the IoT will link the physical world and the Internet, there will also be a large number of devices with their own websites and applications. Basically, physical objects will become part of the Internet.

For instance?

Fleisch: Just imagine a watch you can use to call for help in an emergency, dolls in children’s rooms that analyze the ambient air, walls that are also display screens, windows that generate energy, counterfeit-proof medications, products that know how they need to be assembled, machines that call in maintenance engineers, and much more. The possibilities are endless — our imagination alone will determine what we can accomplish. Remember that some of the fantastic things we used to see in James Bond movies are now a reality. The IoT will make the world more measurable because every object will be able to communicate its location and condition.

What benefits will all of this offer?

Fleisch: We will be able to measure everything exactly because we’ll always know where products and components are located at a given time and what condition they are in. This will enable us to manage things much more precisely. Patients will always get the right medications, farmers will always know what each of their 5,000 cows needs, and buildings will ventilate rooms in line with the conditions at a particular time. All of us will benefit from greater simplicity, convenience, accuracy, enjoyment, and safety. There will be drawbacks, however. For one thing, we’ll become more dependent on technology. We’ll also have to be more careful with the issue of privacy because we need to ensure that individuals maintain ownership of their data and can decide for themselves what’s done with it.

So you see a risk here in terms of our data becoming transparent?

Fleisch: It’s true that the line between the private and the professional realms will become increasingly blurred. But our world has always been marked by tension. Trends never move solely in one direction. If one trend starts to dominate, there will immediately be a countertrend. In other words, people will find ways to protect themselves, but we still need to ensure that we always have freedom of choice. Whether or not it will be easy to deal with such freedom is a different question.

You view the IoT as a Europe-centered technology — why?

Fleisch: Because the Internet of Things actually began in Europe. There were forward-looking thinkers in the U.S. in the 1980s — for example, at the Rank Xerox Research Institute and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But it was the Europeans who got things moving. The Chinese are now heavily involved as well, because their economy still focuses on the production of physical goods. Remember, the IoT involves the merging of the physical and computer worlds. To accomplish this, you need real products, electrical engineers, automation experts, and software developers — and the expertise for all of this is centered in Europe. This is a great economic opportunity, and the nations that take on a leading research and development role in the IoT will be able to safeguard jobs over the long term.

How will the IoT change learning and studying? What might an IoT university look like?

Fleisch: I’m quite certain that educational systems will change dramatically. The simple communication of knowledge will become automated in order to benefit everyone. A likely development will be well-structured video lectures. But students will still need to have personal contact with instructors in order to cover many complex subjects. I would imagine that an IoT university would allow students to obtain knowledge at a pace that suits them. A lot can be done in an IoT environment. For example, people will be able to point their smartphones at paintings, buildings, machines and so on. The target device will then collect information about the object from the Web — but the degree of detail will be adjusted in line with the user’s age and education level.

Might Internet 2.0 widen the gap between rich and poor?

Fleisch: Technology has always been used as an instrument of power. There’s no doubt that dictatorships will try to establish new trends that increase their power — but democracies can also benefit significantly from technologies that enable their citizens to participate in social processes. I’m convinced that mobile communication technology will give a lot more people access to the Internet in the future. I also believe that the IoT will generally have a democratizing effect and that it can increasingly benefit less prosperous segments of society.

In what ways do you expect the IoT to be linked with social media?

Fleisch: It will be linked to them very closely. For example, you will be able to choose the kinds of information that will appear on your Facebook page, and you will also make your physical surroundings visible to others by posting an image of a cafe, a book, a car, or a doctor’s office. All you will need to do is to point your smartphone and click on “Like” — or not click anything.

Prof. Elgar Fleisch 46, is a Director at the Institute of Technology Management at the University of St. Gallen and also holds the Chair for Information and Technology Management at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich). His research work focuses on the economic impact and the infrastructures of ubiquitous computing. Together with a global network of universities, Fleisch and his team are studying possible infrastructures for the Internet of Things. The researchers in his laboratories are also testing solutions for reducing electricity and water demand, and they are developing technology-based innovations for the insurance industry. Fleisch is the co-founder of several spin-offs and a member of various management boards and academic steering committees.

Susanne Gold
Picture credits: R.Polcan/ University St. Gallen