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The importance of trust in the machine economy

Thirty years ago, we did not have cell phones. The most advanced people were beginning to get “car phones.” Those were so cool. They drew from the car’s power supply and had the little antenna on the back of the car that showed everyone how impressive you really were. Most communications were from landlines. And somewhere around that time, people began to use pagers. BlackBerrys became the pager of choice, offering a small keyboard and what was basically text messaging. What a futuristic world it had become!

Today the world looks entirely different. More and more people are abandoning their landlines altogether. The advances in technology have changed the world. We see world events streaming live on Facebook as they unfold. We have news of many varieties available 24 hours a day. And increasingly, we have the convenience of augmenting many aspects of our lives, at home and work, though the internet of things. The advances run far and wide, and the machines themselves are interacting with one another, often on our behalf. That can be a great thing, but it can also be a nightmare. With all this technology that has evolved over the years, we have also seen the emergence, and increasing effectiveness, of bad actors using these tools for malicious purposes. That link that looks harmless might just be a downloading malware to your computer. The guy intently staring at his Mac in the coffee shop might not be working on a report, he might be hacking you over Wi-Fi. With IoT, the attack surface expands dramatically, as we have now seen through tire valves, TVs and even thermometers in aquariums. But there is no sign of the progression towards the machine economy slowing. The level of instrumentation and augmentation of every aspect of our lives moves forward ever faster, and it is easy to see we are moving from smart, connected “IoT-enabled products” to, as Michael Porter and Jim Heppelmann stated in their 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “systems of systems.”

This progression can and should be great, but it won’t be unless we have trust in the ecosystem. This means we have to trust the devices, especially when they are interacting with other devices, often on our behalf, autonomously. Your electric car charger may be buying electricity on the open market from the best bidder at 3:00 AM. But do you really know “who” it is “talking” to? This is why trust is so important. In a world with billions of devices interconnecting (creating the “machine economy”), being able to trust the devices is absolutely critical. Without trust you have nothing. You have a crapshoot every day. And the level of damage can then be so much more. The thief doesn’t need to break the lock on your door; he just hacks the lock digitally. He might even shut the power off in your house. Who knows? All of these devices create misery, not happiness, unless you can trust them.

This means you have to find a way to ensure when you activate the device it is what it is represented to be and does what it is represented to do. There are many ways to do this, but it seems like this is a perfect application for blockchain technology. Using a consensus-based distributed ledger, there can be a much higher degree of confidence that the device you are activating is what it seems to be. The device itself then needs to have adequate security over its lifecycle to keep it from being hacked. And not all devices will escape hacking. We know this. So while we could trust that device when it was first activated, now we are back to anarchy. No trust. No good.

But we know how the device is supposed to behave. It sends messages of a specific type. It operates at a particular cadence. It performs transactions within a reasonably narrow band of transaction amounts. But we can also track the device behavior. This can be noted and written to a consensus ledger as well, where the reputation of a given device is also monitored and managed. Think of it like a credit score for the device. And if the device is hacked and then “misbehaves,” the credit score may go down and, in fact, it may implode. So the other devices that have trusted, and thus interacted with the device in question, may see the changed behavioral reputation score and determine the device can no longer be trusted and choose to engage elsewhere. This is how trust is maintained.

Thirty years from now, the machine economy will usher in a life we can hardly imagine. But trust is the lifeblood of that machine economy. Establishing the identity of any device on the network in a trusted fashion, and then monitoring the reputation of that device to maintain that trust, is essential. There are efforts underway to do just that. Some are in the early stages; others are on the verge of coming to market. The time is now to create such a platform. It must be a simple, straightforward approach that can easily be enabled for any device to participate in the machine economy with trust.

And that means everything. The more people, organizations and devices that participate, the more we can all trust the power and harness the opportunity that lies ahead.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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