Smart Technology

Column Gerd Leonhard: Unintended Consequences

The Internet of Things (IoT) / Internet of Everything / Industrial Internet is sizzling hot. Everywhere I go people ask me about it. Almost every single event I speak at, some of the biggest tech & IT companies in the world are talking about their plans for the IoT, and their billion dollar investments. So I figured this is a good time to set a few things straight, and lay out what I call the #OppChalls (opportunity –challenges) that lie ahead with.

Let’s get one thing clear straight off: yes, the IoT’s potential is mindboggling.  The central premise of the IoT is simple: when everything gets connected, once data is being collected in real-time, everywhere, all the time, we can measure, analyze, anticipate and even predict events and ‘truths’ that were previously hidden under the surface. We can make things and processes much more efficient, save trillions of dollars in the process, and quite possibly solve tricky problems such global warming, too. By connecting everyone and ‘everything’ and deploying machine i.e. artificial intelligence and predictive analytics many of the huge, global IoT purveyors hope to achieve some kind of meta-intelligence through an exponentially increased ability to read, analyze and use data.

Gerd Leonhard - The Futures Agency

What we need are a new kind of “humarithm”, namely buffers and balancers.

Gerd Leonhard
is the founder and CEO of The Futures Agency.
He is based in Zurich.


Nothing vast enters the lives of mortals without a curse, as Sophocles famously warned. Let’s imagine, if can, a not-too-distant world in which your connected car will communicate not only your vehicle’s data (including every time you drive too fast!) in real-time to your insurance company (and conceivably to your local traffic cop); world where every single payments you make I stored on your smartphone because wallets and credit cards will be things of the past; a worldwhere your doctor knows how much or how little you walked last week and how high your heart-rate was while you last slept on the plane; a world where we all become beacons generating and transmitting gigabytes of data for dozens of Watsons to examine through their tireless, selflearning digitals brains.

Efficiency would almost certainly trump humanity at every turn: welcome to a giant machine OS that literally feeds off our output.
Next, let’s consider a very simple question: if we humans can’t even agree on what the rules and ethics for an “Internet of people”; how will we every agree on something thousands of times larger and more complex?

Just who exactly is in charge? We already have guidelines or agreements on what is permitted in bio-technology and bio-engineering such as the 1975 Asilomar guidelines on recombinant DNA. We have NPTs (nuclear proliferation agreements) in place that actually work, as the recent U.S.-Iranian negotiations have proven. But even though data is rapidy becoming the single most powerful economic driver in the world (“the new crude oil”) we lack any kind of global treaty on we are allowed to do with the personal data of billions of Internet users, much less a treaty on cognitive computing or artificial intelligence.
The biggest challenge of humanity in the next 20-50 years by far will be the relationship between man and machine.

Instead, big data, AI and the IoT are largely unregulated spaces at the very same time that their power are surpassing everything that has come before. Who will make sure that “Big IoT” will do the “right thing”? Epecially since the “wrong thing” would have potentially catastrophic results for humanity.
The technology industry’s love affair with IoT we can´t afford this kind of risk.
What we need are a new kind of “humarithm”, namely buffers and balancers that coded into the systems that comprise the Internet of Things and that will ensure truly human values are followed at all times. We need to apply a kind of digital-age precautionary principle to scrutinize and, when necessary, regulate the IoT; a way to make sure that this potential blessing will unintentionally turn into a curse.