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By Keith Kreisher, Executive Director, IoT/M2M Council

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the next decade will be one of monumental change for our world. The pandemic has shown us – in the most tangible way possible – that there is a truly brutal side to global connectivity between people. But technology and innovation do not just represent “the only way out of this mess”. They also point to a future that is truly better and brighter, and the Internet of Things (IoT) stands at the forefront of that future.

The jaded among us (myself sometimes included) have grown tired of the overly optimistic projections for the IoT sector. Some analysts continue to tout close to 30% annual growth for an Industry comprised of 20 billion devices and close to $1 trillion in revenue by 2025. I think we can all agree that the IoT is a high-growth industry. But what are the mega-trends that will deliver the scale-of-application that we are expecting? And yes, those trends will have to be “mega” indeed.

Healthcare is clearly the world’s biggest concern as of this writing. COVID-19 has foisted telehealth solutions upon us, and the ability to use sensors and connectivity to understand a patient’s vital signs has never been more important. But healthcare is just one area where the IoT will play a crucial role in the coming decade. The ability to sense and respond to remote environments offers massive improvements for our planet’s ecology, our public infrastructure, and our industrial manufacturing systems. To be sure, IoT technology may also threaten with the loss of jobs, security, and privacy if not managed correctly. We don’t have a choice about good management.

I see an immediate divergence between those IoT applications that engender high costs and margins at a relatively low scale, and those with low costs and margins at higher scale. Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) are only just beginning to be deployed at scale, and their deployment usually requires sophisticated systems for edge computing, cloud-based analytics, and high-bandwidth networks. It’s not obvious to me how many of these applications will scale without 5G communications platforms, and those are just now coming online (despite what you might be seeing in advertising today). It will be some time before we see “true” AI/ML deployed in thermostats and coffee makers.

The phrase “low-cost” does not mean “low-tech”, and there’s a lot of R&D being directed at IoT solutions that require little energy or bandwidth but offer longer, more robust life-cycles for devices. Micro-mechanics, self-charging batteries, and low-power networks are just some of the technologies that might allow IoT solutions providers to push down costs in the future. The IoT is often referred to as “the communications layer in the stack”. At some point, it may become cost-neutral to include that communications layer in any product – even thermostats and coffee makers. That may be where the scale comes from to make IoT’s potential meet its reality.

The clouds on the IoT horizon aren’t going away anytime soon. Does anyone doubt that distributed denial-of-service attacks will get nastier? Or that private data will get misused in significant ways by somebody, somewhere? Or that some current types of employment will be automated? State-of-the-art tech will move downward in cost and upward in scale, as it has done since the advent of Moore’s Law in the early 70’s. As that movement takes shape, even more sophisticated solutions than we can possibly imagine today will make embedded devices safer and more useful to all of us.

It’s good news that government attempts to manage IoT technology appear to be getting more nimble – recently introduced security regs in the EU, UK, and California are a case in point. And it’s clear that massive economic interventions resulting from the pandemic will force governments to reckon with long-standing economic issues, in addition to the immediate aftermath of the virus. Despite the difficult times of this writing, I remain an optimist. We will learn to manage this brave new world and be better for it. The benefits of the IoT will continue to outweigh the drawbacks, and the technology will be a cornerstone of free society’s solutions moving forward.