The Internet of Things (IoT) is a phrase that has both captivated and confused the technology decision maker. The ideas are endless – a world in which billions of physical devices are connected. What does this connection mean though? How will we interact with these connected objects and devices? And how will it affect our business?
What is the Internet of Things?
According to forecasts from Gartner, The Internet of Things will include 26 billion units installed by 2020. IoT product and service suppliers will generate incremental revenue exceeding 300 billion dollars, mostly in services, in 2020. It will result in 1.9 trillion dollars in global economic value-add through sales into diverse end markets.
“The way we define the IoT is it’s a network of physical devices typically associated with sensing the environment – they can be output devices but they’re typically sensors – which gathers data, gathers information, and uses that information for some kind of business benefit,” says Jim Tully, VP Distinguished Analyst at Gartner, in an internal interview. “When we talk about IoT it’s not just the things, it’s an entire stack of technologies. We can conceptually think of it as being sensors and physical devices down at the bottom of the stack, but that’s linked to communications technology, to other types of technology for storing, securing and analyzing data ultimately for some kind of business purpose.”
Essentially, the Internet of Things can conceivably connect any device to the internet and allow that device to monitor and collect data. A popular example is the smart fridge, which could monitor the amount of food it currently holds and send a message to the owner’s smartphone when the fridge is out of, say, milk. This can also be scaled up, for example, to streetlights that sense how often people pass nearby and adjust light emission based on who is around. These objects can work together, for example a self-driving car can communicate with an upcoming traffic light, both being connected through IoT, to decide whether the car should speed up, slow down, stop, or continue at the current pace. Waste baskets could signal when they need to be emptied, alarm clocks could set themselves automatically based on our personal calendars, city busses could update their location in real time – the physical world could communicate with itself, solve problems before they occur and relay information that we need to us when we need it.
How Do We Make the Internet of Things?
Ruminating on all of the potential capabilities of the Internet of Things is a ton of fun. So is imagining what we would do if we suddenly developed super powers. But imagining things doesn’t make them possible. So how are we going to create the Internet of Things? It all starts with the Thing.
We have an object in the physical world. This is our Thing. Our mission is to connect this Thing to all the other things out there. Which means that we need to identify our Thing as our Thing, rather than any of billions of other things. Our first step, then, is giving our Thing an identity. In regards to the IoT, this means a personal IP address for every connected object or device that distinguishes it against the crowd. Much like a social security number for citizens of the United States, IP addresses will be unique to individual objects and will act as the core identifier within the vast sea of data that the IoT will produce.
Next we have to give our Thing with its new identity the ability to communicate with other things. This means outfitting each device, within the hardware that connects it to the IoT, with the ability to connect to WiFi or the future equivalent. Wireless communication has already been established, but it will still take time to increase bandwidth and lower costs to the point where so many objects can be online at the same time. However, installing the ability to connect is relatively simple in this process.
If the point of connecting objects to the IoT is to capture and analyze data, then we must outfit our Thing with certain senses. The same way humans can smell, taste, touch, see and hear to understand what is happening around them, our Thing must be equipped with sensors that suit the purposes of the object. For example, a streetlight might be equipped with motion sensors to monitor when people pass under its light, while a chair might be equipped with pressure sensors that sense when it is occupied. So too must our Thing be given the ability to monitor the proper data around and within.
Finally, we need to control our Thing. And when I say we, I mean you, me and all the other things that might need to communicate with our Thing. The idea of IoT is to be able to streamline all kinds of different processes that usually require real world information before being able to be carried out. So, say a sewer line gets clogged, making it dangerous for cars to travel on the street. The sewer line has to be able to tell the traffic lights to redirect traffic away from the danger zone, while it also tells weather apps to inform self-driving cars not to travel in that direction anymore. Meanwhile the self-driving cars will announce to passengers over the radio what the problem is and why it is redirecting the route. Ideally, this is how all IoT processes will work, a bunch of ‘individuals’ communicating and making decisions in seconds that might take hours for humans with no access to data.
Internet of Things in the Workplace
Now we have an idea of how IoT should work and what it should do in general. But what about IoT in the workplace? The possibilities are endless.
The DIKW pyramid used in information science is a good indication of what IoT hopes to accomplish. The massive amount of data we will be able to collect can be mined for more information, which can then be used to give us more knowledge, which in turn generates wisdom.
It is already possible to monitor usage of equipment like videoconferencing suites or presentation technology. IoT can monitor who is using this equipment and how productive they are when using the equipment. When supplies are running low in your office or in one of your stores IoT can re-order automatically. Marketing and advertising can change to cater to individuals based on their searches, the areas they visit, the music they listen to and the people they interact with. Customers can use smartphones to scan products at a mall or grocery store and learn facts about the nutrition or materials in the product, watch a commercial about it and be directed to the company website.
It goes further than that. Lights and air conditioning systems can shut down as soon as the last person leaves the building, security systems can stop an intruder as soon as they walk in the door and payroll can speak with access control to find out when and for how long every individual employee is at work. Manufacturing equipment can detect problems within machinery and either fix it or notify maintenance immediately. That same machinery can communicate with itself to maximize production flow, and can shut down or start up based on the location of different materials that are being shipped in smart freights and trucks. Already we are seeing devices that measure soil, moisture and atmosphere to determine peak planting and harvesting times for crops.
These examples only scratch the surface. Depending on your business practices the process will differ, but the outcome remains the same – you can streamline everything by connecting different objects, devices and people and having them communicate to achieve maximum efficiency.
The Concern about the Internet of Things
There are many benefits surrounding the potential of IoT. However, many experts have reservations about what IoT will mean for our privacy and security. A number of famous hacks from Sony to Target have occurred just in the past couple of years. Imagine if the information stolen included detailed descriptions about the everyday habits of millions of people.
Say, for example, a diabetic person’s insulin monitor were connected to the internet. It is conceivable that a hacker could take control of the device and deliver a fatal dose or stop delivering dosages altogether. Scale this up to an entire hospital, where every machine that is monitoring vitals and delivering medicine is susceptible to being hacked. Massive terrorist attacks could be carried out by small, remote teams, and that is a real and terrifying concern.
We should be concerned, but we should also be hopeful at the potential good. As with any technological advancement, from guns to smartphones, the benefits or detriments will depend on how people use them and secure them. One thing is for sure. The Internet of Things is coming.
“Whatever we think about it – whatever way we think it will turn out – get used to it, because it’s already happening,” says Dr. John Barrett, Head of Academic Studies at the Nimbus Centre for Embedded Systems Research at the Cork Institute of Technology in a 2012 TED Talk. “Every major global government and every major economic block is investing heavily in the Internet of Things.” That was three years ago.
We’re in the IoT revolution.