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The Internet of Everything and the future of work: An interview with the FCC's David Bray

Christopher Nordlinger, Ph.D. CEO, The Nordlinger Collective

Several articles have been written this year about the potential social impacts of the future Internet of Everything, yet very little has been written about how the Internet of Everything will transform how we work as professionals. I recently had a chance to discuss this very topic—the Internet of Everything in workplaces as well as in consumer environments—with Dr. David A. Bray, who traveled in 2015 to meet with industry and government leaders in Australia and Taiwan on this topic as an Eisenhower Fellow.

Dr. David A. Bray (@fcc_cio) also serves as chief information officer for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and as a visiting associate at the University of Oxford on cybersecurity and culture. Disclaimer: The personal views expressed in this article are solely his own in his capacity as a 2015 Eisenhower Fellow and not necessarily linked to any organization where he works.

Back in 2001 you led the CDC's bioterrorism preparedness program's technology response to 9/11 and anthrax. What Internet of Everything technologies do you wish you had back then, and why?

Dr. Bray: At 9 a.m. on the morning of September 11, 2001, I was to brief FBI, CIA, and defense officials on how proposed improvements in the IT infrastructure of public health laboratories could greatly aid national response to a bioterrorism event. It's seared in my memory because the meeting never started. Members of my program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were quickly evacuated to a command bunker when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.

For the following three weeks the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program (BPRP), of which I was a part, monitored high-profile national locations for indications of a secondary biological attack. Around the clock, we were in regular contact with states and the FBI. Later, at 9 a.m. on the morning of October 3, 2001, I briefed the Interagency Intelligence Committee on Terrorism with regard to BPRP's efforts to improve response capacity to bioterrorism. A day later, on October 4, 2001, the Miami Public Health lab in Florida detected the presence of anthrax in a recently hospitalized patient. BPRP staff members, including myself, were mobilized on high alert.

Looking back at what we had 14 years ago, we could have benefitted from much better devices in the area of biosensors to collect information about an environment. Are there anthrax spores in a building, and if so, where? These could be Internet of Everything devices that moved throughout the building autonomously, taking samples and either "sequencing on a chip" in situ, or saving the environment samples for testing later.

We also could have benefitted from better technologies to collaborate across agencies, rapidly identifying different personnel on the response scene regardless of whether they were FBI, CDC, local law enforcement, state public health, etc. Tools that allow improved, ad hoc collaborations and interoperable data in the middle of a disaster response are essential.

What changes do you see on the horizon for how we work as professionals using the Internet of Everything? What can individuals and organizations start doing now to prepare for these changes?

Dr. Bray: I think these early devices show a perceived hunger in workers to leverage the Internet of Everything to make our work environments modular and personalized. The simplification part will require more than just the Internet of Everything to help establish context for what workers are doing; it will also require software and data analytics to use that context to accelerate discovery of fruitful collaborations and improve context-dependent decision making across the entire enterprise.

These devices also point to increased location-specific information about where and what someone is doing in a company. In Taiwan and Australia, when I asked about personal privacy, leaders in both countries said that it was something they thought that the United States "cared more about" than individuals in their own countries. Some leaders in Australia said they thought individuals in the United States cared more about privacy as part of our cultural heritage of fighting a revolution against a king back in the 1700s.

At the same time, leaders in both Taiwan and Australia had concerns about storing privacy preferences on platforms not directly controlled by a company or individual. The issue there, they said, was the terms and conditions for these privacy preferences frequently were changing. When I asked leaders in Taiwan and Australia if they would share their location information outside of work, for example when shopping in a grocery store or within a mall, a majority of leaders said yes, if they had the option to choose when the location information was on or off. The leaders also stressed they would do this only if the terms and conditions of what was being done with their information were clear and didn't change regularly.

My takeaway from all of this is that workplaces are going to have to have conversations internally regarding how much location-specific information they want to collect about where and what someone is doing in a company. The same is true for how much location-specific information they want to collect about their customers within their company if they're a brick-and-mortar store. Some companies may lean toward collecting a lot, whereas others may opt not to collect any. Both decisions have benefits and drawbacks; personally, I celebrate a diversity of choices being available.

At what point do other advances, such as machine learning and big data analytics, amplify the impact of the Internet of Everything in how we work as professionals? Will the impacts be sector specific or will the changes cut across all sectors?

Dr. Bray: From conversations in Taiwan and Australia, there's a convergence that's rapidly accelerating among machine learning and big data analytics as both disciplines help improve the results of the other. Data analytics are "smarter" with machine learning of patterns and anomalies. Machine learning is smarter with big data sets to help establish patterns of what's normal, not normal, and different contexts.

Similarly, I think the Internet of Everything is going to help improve machine-learning and big data analytics by providing location- and time-specific information "in situ" in unprecedented levels of detail and longitudinally. In return, machine learning and big data analytics will enable the Internet of Everything to be more context-aware and thus better benefit workers in their jobs or consumers interacting in a brick-and-mortar store.

Based on your fellowship overseas, what trends in Taiwan and Australia did you see as indicative of broader social impacts associated with the Internet of Everything?

Dr. Bray: Since one can only collect location-specific information about shopping behaviors within a brick-and-mortar store, the Internet of Everything might semi-ironically signal a shift back to having physical stores in addition to huge online retailers if customers perceive value in such analytics, either in the form of personalization or greater discounts as a result.

What I learned in Taiwan and Australian was the importance of giving individuals "choice architectures" about their privacy information. Leaders in both countries were concerned when platforms, storing privacy preferences, frequently changed their terms and conditions in 30-page terms and conditions that very few individuals have time to read thoroughly.

We're going to have to find a better way to give individuals choice architecture about what personal information will include where they are in time and space, as well as the ability to choose when such sharing is on or off. I would like to think having a choice architecture isn't just something that's important to individuals in the United States; rather, that it's important for all individuals wanting to have the freedom to choose what information is shared and not shared via the Internet of Everything.

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