May 14, 2014

The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025

About this Report

This report is the latest research report in a sustained effort throughout 2014 by the Pew Research Center Internet Project to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee (The Web at 25).

A February 2014 report from Pew Internet Project tied to the Web’s anniversary looked at the strikingly fast adoption of the Internet. It also looked at the generally positive attitudes users have about its role in their social environment.

A March 2014 Digital Life in 2025 report issued by Pew Internet Project in association with Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center looked at the Internet’s future. Some 1,867 experts and stakeholders responded to an open-ended question about the future of the Internet by 2025. They said it would become so deeply part of the environment that it would become “like electricity”—less visible even as it becomes more important in people’s daily lives.

To a notable extent, the experts agree on the technology change that lies ahead, even as they disagree about its ramifications. Most believe there will be:

  • A global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases, and massive data centers in a world-spanning information fabric known as the Internet of Things.
  • “Augmented reality” enhancements to the real-world input that people perceive through the use of portable/wearable/implantable technologies.
  • Disruption of business models established in the 20th century (most notably impacting finance, entertainment, publishers of all sorts, and education).
  • Tagging, databasing, and intelligent analytical mapping of the physical and social realms.

This current report is an analysis of opinions about the likely expansion of the Internet of Things (sometimes called the Cloud of Things), a catchall phrase for the array of devices, appliances, vehicles, wearable material, and sensor-laden parts of the environment that connect to each other and feed data back and forth. It covers the over 1,600 responses that were offered specifically about our question about where the Internet of Things would stand by the year 2025. The report is the next in a series of eight Pew Research and Elon University analyses to be issued this year in which experts will share their expectations about the future of such things as privacy, cybersecurity, and net neutrality. It includes some of the best and most provocative of the predictions survey respondents made when specifically asked to share their views about the evolution of embedded and wearable computing and the Internet of Things.

Survey respondents expect the Internet of Things to be evident in many places, including:

  • Bodies: Many people will wear devices that let them connect to the Internet and will give them feedback on their activities, health and fitness. They will also monitor others (their children or employees, for instance) who are also wearing sensors, or moving in and out of places that have sensors.
  • Homes: People will be able to control nearly everything remotely, from how their residences are heated and cooled to how often their gardens are watered. Homes will also have sensors that warn about everything from prowlers to broken water pipes.
  • Communities: Embedded devices and smartphone apps will enable more efficient transportation and give readouts on pollution levels. “Smart systems” might deliver electricity and water more efficiently and warn about infrastructure problems.
  • Goods and services: Factories and supply chains will have sensors and readers that more precisely track materials to speed up and smooth out the manufacture and distribution of goods.
  • Environment: There will be real-time readings from fields, forests, oceans, and cities about pollution levels, soil moisture, and resource extraction that allow for closer monitoring of problems.

Expert respondent Patrick Tucker, author of The Naked Future: What Happens In a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? provided a nice working description of the Internet of Things, writing: “Here are the easy facts: In 2008, the number of Internet-connected devices first outnumbered the human population, and they have been growing far faster than have we. There were 13 billion Internet-connected devices in 2013, according to Cisco, and there will be 50 billion in 2020. These will include phones, chips, sensors, implants, and devices of which we have not yet conceived.”

Tucker went on to forecast the benefits of all this connected computing: “One positive effect of ‘ubiquitous computing,’ as it used to be called, will be much faster, more convenient, and lower-cost medical diagnostics. This will be essential if we are to meet the health care needs of a rapidly aging Baby Boomer generation. The Internet of Things will also improve safety in cities, as cars, networked to one another and their environment, will better avoid collisions, coordinate speed, etc. We will all be able to bring much more situational intelligence to bear on the act of planning our day, avoiding delays (or unfortunate encounters), and meeting our personal goals. We are entering the telemetric age—an age where we create information in everything that we do. As computation continues to grow less costly, we will incorporate more data-collecting devices into our lives.”

Others we cite in this report are less sanguine about the surveillance and tracking that is involved in making the Internet of Things work. Their views are also extensively covered in this report.

This report is a collaborative effort based on the input and analysis of the following individuals.

Prof. Janna Anderson, Director, Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center
Lee Rainie, Director, Internet Project
Maeve Duggan, Research Assistant, Internet Project

Find related reports about the future of the Internet at http://www.pewinternet.org/topics/future-of-the-internet/.