Phrases such as ‘connected technology’, ‘smart devices’ and the ‘Internet of Things’ are often treated as interchangeable descriptions of an environment in which connected physical devices are used to exchange data as part of their functionality. Though many see this as part of the evolution of digital technology, others view the Internet of Things as a new departure with significant implications for modern living. Meanwhile, in the commercial sphere – where IoT-inspired advertising is often given free rein – it often suits manufacturers to allow an aura of mystique to grow up around the whole concept of smart devices which talk to each other.
So what is Internet of Things? To answer that question, it’s best to go back to the roots of this technology …
What is Internet of Things & the roots of IoT-based technology
Though it was arguably the Chinese government’s 2010 decision to sponsor and develop Internet of Things technology that gave the idea headline billing, the notion of smart connectivity goes back considerably further than that. As early as the 1970s, researchers discussed the connectivity of multiple devices under the banner of terms like ‘pervasive computing’ and the idea of ‘embedded internet systems’.
In truth, IoT-based technology has emerged as a result of the gradual convergence of wireless technologies, micro-electronic systems, the concept of microservices and the internet itself. This shift has facilitated interactions between control-oriented operational technology and data-oriented information technology, which has prompted the analysis of volumes of machine-generated data to effect performance improvements and inform system design. Thus IoT evolved from device connectivity within networks which required no direct human interface.
One of the first instances of internet connectivity involving appliances was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the 1980s. A coke machine located in Carnegie Mellon University was rigged up so it could report its stock availability to student researchers, who were thus able to track the machine’s contents over the Internet – saving themselves a trip out if the machine was empty.
Then in 1999, Neil Gershenfeld’s book ‘When Things Start to Think’ offered a populist description of a 21st-century society in which technological advances such as wearable computers would enable humans and computers to ‘communicate effortlessly’. Again in 1999, but perhaps more significantly, Kevin Ashton, a British technology pioneer who co-founded the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), referenced the internet of things during a corporate presentation about the potential of radio frequency ID technology.
Gradually taking machine-to-machine (M2M) technology to higher and higher levels of functionality, present-day IoT-inspired systems employ sensor-based technologies to connect humans, smart devices, systems and various other applications. This device-to-device inter-connectivity is the core component of the internet of things which enables the gathering and sharing of data between participants.
From a software perspective, the development of IoT-based devices can also be traced back to industrial software designed for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) purposes. SCADA technology was created to facilitate the control of industrial manufacturing processes either locally or remotely. System data was first collected by individual hardware devices and then processed and analysed by software. That’s why some experts believe the emergence of the internet of things could just as easily be described as a natural, ‘fourth-generation’ evolution of third-generation SCADA networks.
How does IoT actually work?
Alternatively referred as the Internet of Everything (IoE), an IoT-based network comprises internet-enabled devices which employ embedded sensors, processors and communications hardware equipment to gather, transmit and respond to data acquired from their surrounding environments. The sharing of sensor data occurs via a connection to an internet of things gateway or similar edge device. Placed at the environment boundary, these devices can relay data to a cloud platform or elsewhere for analysis and also interact with similar devices to exchange data or execute a data-driven response.
Such activities do not generally require any kind of human intervention. However, it is often the case that a human can gain access for purposes such as system configuration, data access, or perhaps instructions issued via some kind of manual override. The specifics of prevailing connectivity, communication and networking protocols will usually vary according to the performance outcomes which are anticipated.
The advantages of IoT-based technology
For domestic and commercial users, IoT-based technology offers convenience and a number of significant benefits, such as:
– continuous monitoring of systems and processes; – system automation and control; – enhancement of customer experience; – cost and time savings; – improved performance and/or increased productivity; – convenient integration and rapid adaptation of business models; – better-informed decision-making; and – increased revenue generation.
IoT-driven systems prompt companies to re-imagine how they do business, and provide them with powerful tools to rethink and refine their commercial strategies.
Domestic and commercial IoT deployment
The internet of things is now a relatively common feature of many domestic and commercial environments, and whether or not the functionality is activated, much modern equipment is now supplied in IoT-ready configurations.
It seems many contemporary householders have asked themselves ‘What is Internet of Things’ because the smart home concept is already well-established in the domestic world where IoT-enabled devices abound. There are now smart thermostats and sensors attached to many devices to monitor and control the performance of household heating, lighting, security cameras, electronic equipment and many home appliances. These can all be remotely controlled using smartphones, laptops, tablets and similar mobile devices.
In both consumer and commercial environments wearable technology is now used extensively to gather, analyse and transmit data. For instance, private users may wish to monitor their walking or running for health and fitness purposes. And in the public safety domain, some police and emergency services often deploy wearable devices for protection or to enable them to respond more rapidly and effectively in circumstances where someone’s life may be under threat.
Health services of all kinds now routinely use IoT-enabled equipment to enhance their ability to continuously monitor service users and analyse the data generated to improve the quality of patient care. And likewise, internet of things technology can also be used to automate and regulate the administration of pharmaceutical products to safeguard patients, as well as to increase efficiency and reduce waste.
Public and commercial applications
Architect-designed smart buildings now often include sensor-based systems which can intelligently determine how many people are in any particular space. Based on that information, the internal climate can be automatically adjusted to optimise their comfort. This has the added advantage of minimising heating and lighting costs, for example, where a building may not be in full occupation for extended periods during the working day.
In rural environments, IoT-based smart farming systems (often assisted by data-gathering drones) can continuously monitor weather conditions, or animal housing environments, in order to optimise the correct agricultural response to the data. Thus crop yields can be optimised by the automatic triggering of irrigation systems, and animal husbandry decision-making improved with the benefit of continuous monitoring and internal climate adjustments.
The internet of things has hastened the arrival of smart city environments which are now characterised by smart traffic regulation, fully automated street lighting and the smart metering of finite resources. And in addition, air quality can be continuously monitored to improve the environment and thus enhance the quality of life for city dwellers.
Data security and the Internet of Things
With IoT-based solutions appearing everywhere in the home and workplace environments, security and privacy issues have inevitably come under scrutiny. And given the autonomous nature and capabilities of such monitoring and data-gathering devices, it is no surprise these relatively insecure systems became a target for hackers.
At first it was low-level criminal activity such as using easily obtainable code-generating equipment to gain illegal access to smart homes and smart buildings. However, more widespread and devastating hacks such as the deployment of the Mirai botnet threat which paralysed sections of the Internet via a broadly distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. Such initiatives exploited the inherent vulnerability of many interconnected smart devices to spread data-stealing malware across a host of networked computer systems. And beyond personal privacy and commercial data hacking, such attacks also have the potential to disrupt financial networks, public transport systems and the Internet itself.
The core issue is the security architecture of the internet of things, a distributive client-server model which allows a central authority to access and manage connected devices, as well as all the data created and gathered across an IoT-based network. In other words, smart devices are not quite ‘smart’ enough to handle attempted security breaches without reference to their external control protocols.
Experts such as Joseph Pindar, who co-founded the Trusted IoT Alliance, have advocated the use of blockchaininspired technology to solve this design vulnerability. In Pindar’s view, a blockchain-based solution would empower smart device networks to find alternative ways to secure themselves. He suggested this could be done by developing a ‘group consensus’ to identify what would be considered normal and abnormal behaviour within a particular network environment. Such local protocols would then allow networks to isolate any nodes behaving in unusual ways.
Rather like current blockchain-based models used to secure some financial transactions, this technology which creates a public chain of events has the potential to deter hackers and restore the integrity of smart-device networks.
The future for the Internet of Things
The Internet of Things was created by a process of convergence, and the parallel advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) now offers some new opportunities to take future IoT-based technologies and applications to a new level.
Speaking about IoT futures at LiveWorx 2018, Kevin Ashton cited developments such as driverless cars which have the potential to quickly become a widespread Internet of Things enabled application which will have a ‘radical impact’ on future lifestyles. And in the commercial sphere, Ashton advises businesses to avoid the temptation to over invest. He believes ‘start gradually’ is the best strategy, which he defines as finding ‘an annoying, small problem that your customer has’, and then proceeding to: ‘… add a single network-connected sensor to a single product or a single, internal process [and] get one, specific piece of value out of that.’
Reading between the lines, it would seem Ashton is observing that, as it presently stands, the Internet of Things should be approached like much else that is new: Don’t spend all your time and money asking ‘What is Internet of Things.’ It’s best to test the water first and find out what really works for you before embarking upon any full-scale commitment.
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