The Internet of Things: Challenges and Opportunities

The following is the extract of an interview with Grant Erickson, also an ECE alumnus, who focuses our attention on some of the challenges and concerns that coexist with the opportunities of living in a connected world. Currently employed at Nest, Grant gives us an insight into how some of these concerns can be addressed while individuals can still reap the benefits of connectedness.

On how IoT will change the tech industry

As we look back at some of the substantial retail data breaches of the past couple of years, the scale of many was enormous. Consumers reacted with outrage and some with their wallets in the form of boycotts. A number of retailers attempted to ensure their customers were protected via credit monitoring. These retailers internalized and directly bore the substantial costs associated with that monitoring in addition to the losses in sales from reduced customer visits. As customer visits to many of the retailers have inched back to pre-breach levels, the long-term sense of personal violation consumers have experienced is less clear.

As Internet-connected devices become more and more pervasive, they not only will start to outnumber Internet-connected people but they will also have the chance to reach further into customers’ personal lives. Consequently, breaches in IoT have the potential to not only reach a scale eclipsing these retail breaches of the past in number, but also to spark a greater sense of personal violation for customers and a stronger reaction from them. I believe these risks and their consequences will lead industry to spend more time up front planning and designing the security of their ecosystems and their consumers’ data, leading to a more offensive and proactive approach rather than a defensive and reactive one.

In the spectrum from the short all the way to the long-term, IoT will continue to place a tremendous emphasis on communications technologies: hardware and software alike. In addition, there will be a continuing and growing emphasis on data. Take a simple example from the Nest Learning Thermostat’s Time-to-Temperature feature. By simply gathering data over a short period of time about how quickly your home’s HVAC system can heat or cool your home, it can then analyze that data to provide real customer convenience and value by letting them know, reliably, how long it will take to get comfortable.

In the mid to long-term, I believe inherent in the Internet of Things is the internet. Consequently, today’s varied patchwork of communications technologies will continue to consolidate and converge around those technologies that can provide a secure and energy-efficient means to transport IPv6 traffic to and from IoT devices to cloud services and mobile applications.

On significant IoT opportunities

One area of substantial economic benefit and growth is that of convenience and efficiency. Our lives are already incredibly busy and the demands for our attention ever increasing. The costs of energy and resources continue to increase.

Products and services that leverage their connectedness to provide consumers with greater convenience and efficiency while also working to save them time, money, and other resources are well-positioned to reap this economic benefit and growth.
A great example is the Nest Learning Thermostat. With the Nest Learning Thermostat, even though it is incredibly easy relative to any thermostat you might have previously owned, there’s no need to program it with your and your family’s schedule. Just set it to the temperatures that make you comfortable at the times you want them and the Nest Learning Thermostat figures out and establishes a schedule for you. From there, with features like Auto-Away and Rush Hour Rewards (with participating energy providers), your Nest Learning Thermostat helps you save both money and energy, by using less of your heating and cooling systems when you or your family are not at home, or when your utility needs to shed load to accommodate increased energy grid demands.

On concerns and controversies

The confidentiality, availability, authenticity, and integrity of the data gathered, processed, and derived by the IoT systems that you use, own, and surround you are critically important. For example, your car and your mobile phone—if you have either—have the potential to know your whereabouts throughout the days, weeks, and years. You, as a customer, should have the assurance that the data undergirding that knowledge is only shared with entities you explicitly authorize, cannot be known by any entities outside of those you authorize, and cannot be embellished or otherwise edited by anyone other than you or the devices you own and use on your behalf.

There are ways in which companies can best address these challenges and concerns. Establish a formal, crisp, and clear information privacy policy with your customers. Demonstrate to customers through both communications and actions that the confidentiality and integrity of their data is important. Allow customers to opt into having their data gathered and shared, make it clear to them the purposes for which it is being gathered and shared, and for how long it will be gathered and shared. Allow them to opt back out if they no longer wish to gather or share. Ensure that technical architecture and design processes are in place such that the confidentiality, integrity, and longevity of customer data are designed in from the start rather than addressed as an after-thought. These technical architecture and design facets need to be thought of end-to-end, from the various communications hardware and software used on the IoT devices themselves, all the way to the cloud computing, storage infrastructure, and mobile applications these devices increasingly rely upon.

On design challenges that can impact widespread implementation of IoT

We are in a time of great enthusiasm and growth for this nascent market, not unlike that of the PC revolution in the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the consumer Internet revolution of the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, and the mobile revolution underway since the mid-2000s.

By getting out ahead of the information security challenges mentioned earlier, doing right by the customer, and providing a maximum of convenience and value with a minimum of hassle and worry for the customer, companies will engender an environment of low regulation and commensurately high-innovation and growth. On the other hand, one or two prominent and not even necessarily catastrophic failures may serve to slow and cool the market, and dampen industry and consumer uptake.

On experience with Nest changing expectations regarding technology and its future

My time and experiences at Nest have reinforced my appreciation and respect for the fact that most consumers—particularly mainstream consumers—are not interested in technology in and of itself. They are interested in solutions, convenience, experiences, and delight.

Building those solutions for customers demands a company with an end-to-end consumer view and world-class team of people with unassailable talents in a diversity of fields: sales, marketing, communications, operations, supply chain, design, logistics, manufacturing, packaging, software, hardware, quality assurance and systems integration, and customer support. It needs a team of people who both demand and deliver excellence in all that they do, excellence not only within their area of specialization but also cross-functionally.

Technology enables great products and experiences; however, world-class teams bring them to life. Technology has a very bright future when it is focused on solving problems for people, providing the supporting infrastructure to delightful customer solutions, and making the seemingly impossible, possible.

Grant Erickson graduated with his BEE degree in 1996, and his MSEE degree in 1998, both from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Minnesota. He led the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association for 16 years. Grant currently works for Nest Labs, resides in Sunnyvale with his wife Jessica, daughter Grace, and golden doodle Charlie. Some of Grant’s other passions include architecture and design, playing the guitar, food, and cooking.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent those of the author’s employer, Nest Labs.