Will the 'Internet of Things' Actually Be a Thing in 2014?

Padmasree Warrior, an executive at Cisco, says yes—with an excellent zombie metaphor.
This cup is not part of the Internet of things, but it's sure cool enough to be. (coffee_circle/flickr)

The so-called "Internet of things" has gotten a lot of hype lately. The idea is pretty simple, albeit logistically complex: Companies can put chips in inanimate objects—cars, thermostats, refrigerators, lightbulbs—that allow those objects to be connected to the Internet and controlled remotely. 

Our colleagues over at Quartz have a long list of arguments for why 2014 will actually be the year of the "things." Adding to their chorus is Padmasree Warrior, Cisco's Chief Technology and Strategy Officer. At the Silicon Valley Summit on Monday, she said her company is predicting an aggressive adoption curve for making all things digital.

"In 1984, there were 1000 connected devices," she said. "That number rose up to reach a million devices in 1992, and reached a billion devices in 2008. Our estimates say... that we will have roughly 50 billion connected devices by the year 2020. That number is going to really accelerate over the next several years. Despite the fact, we estimate that only one percent of things that could have an IP address do have an IP address today, so we like to say that 99 percent of the world is still asleep.

"It’s up to our imaginations to figure out what will happen when the 99 percent wakes up."

What an image. The metaphor of everyday objects "waking up" is visually striking, if nothing else: One can imagine an office or kitchen coming alive with new beeps, subtle movements, and automatic adjustments to make life more efficient. Anthropomorphized kitchen appliances seem a little creepy, and during her interview, Warrior faced just that question: Are people really better off surrounded by a fully connected web of objects?

In her opinion, yes. "I think sensors will help us to lead a better life," she said. "Yeah, technology will be pervasive, devices will be pervasive, sensors will tell us things about ourselves, and all of these things will be around us. But I tend to believe that we want to better things with technology."

To Warrior, "better" probably means something along the lines of maximizing efficiency, safety, and convenience through an increasingly quantified self and quantified world. Looking ahead to 2014, it will be interesting to see whether most people see this question the same way as companies like Cisco: Is it good live in a maximally quantified world? As it becomes more feasible for companies to create products in the "Internet of things," the new question will be this: Will people buy it?

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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