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Chips with everything


How the world will change as computers spread into everyday obxts


The “Internet of Things” will fundamentally change the relationship between consumers and producers


On august 29th, as Hurricane Dorian tracked towards America’s east coast, Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla, an electric-car maker, announced that some of his customers in the storm’s path would find that their cars had suddenly developed the ability to drive farther on a single battery charge. Like many modern vehicles, Mr Musk’s products are best thought of as internet-connected computers on wheels. The cheaper models in Tesla’s line-up have parts of their batteries disabled by the car’s software in order to limit their range. At the tap of a keyboard in Palo Alto, the firm was able to remove those restrictions and give drivers temporary access to the full power of their batteries.


Businesses will get efficiency, as information about the physical world that used to be ephemeral and uncertain becomes concrete and analysable. Smart lighting in buildings saves energy. Computerised machinery can predict its own breakdowns and schedule preventive maintenance. Connected cows can have their eating habits and vital signs tracked in real time, which means they produce more milk and require less medicine when they fall ill. Such gains are individually small but, compounded again and again across an economy, they are the raw material of growth—potentially a great deal of it.


In the long term, though, the most conspicuous effects of the iot will be in how the world works. One way to think of it is as the second phase of the internet. This will carry with it the business models that have come to dominate the first phase—all-conquering “platform” monopolies, for instance, or the data-driven approach that critics call “surveillance capitalism”. Ever more companies will become tech companies; the internet will become all-pervasive. As a result, a series of unresolved arguments about ownership, data, surveillance, competition and security will spill over from the virtual world into the real one.


Start with ownership. As Mr Musk showed, the internet gives firms the ability to stay connected to their products even after they have been sold, transforming them into something closer to services than goods. That has already blurred traditional ideas of ownership. When Microsoft closed its ebook store in July, for instance, its customers lost the ability to read titles they had bought (the firm offered refunds). Some early adopters of “smart home” gadgets have found that they ceased to work after the firms that made them lost interest.

首先是所有权问题。正如马斯克先生所展示的,产品卖出去后,企业能够与产品保持联网,说它们是产品,倒不如说是服务。这已经模糊了传统的所有权概念。例如,微软公司在7月份关闭了电子书店,用户无法阅读购买过的书籍(微软提供退款)。 “智能家居”小家电的一些早期用户发现,产品随着制造商失去兴趣而停止运行。

Then there is competition. Flows of data from iot gadgets are just as valuable as those gleaned from Facebook posts or a Google search history. The logic of data-driven businesses, which do ever better as they collect and process more information, will replicate the market dynamics that have seen the rise of giant platform companies on the internet. The need for standards, and for iot devices to talk to each other, will add to the leaders’ advantages—as will consumer fears, some of them justified, over the vulnerability of internet-connected cars, medical implants and other devices to hacking.


Predicting the consequences of any technology is hard—especially one as universal as computing. The advent of the consumer internet, 25 years ago, was met with starry-eyed optimism. These days it is the internet’s defects, from monopoly power to corporate snooping and online radicalisation, that dominate the headlines. The trick with the iot, as with anything, will be to maximise the benefits while minimising the harms. That will not be easy. But the people thinking about how to do it have the advantage of having lived through the first internet revolution—which should give them some idea of what to expect.