The Internet of Things: will it transform connectivity as we know it?

If you’ve been keeping up to date with tech news and business press, you’ll perhaps have encountered something called the Internet of Things. You’re also more likely than not to have used a device that’s connected to it. So what is it? Why is it important? And what do you need to know? 

  • Last updated Jan 2, 2020 10:56:12 AM
  • Elizabeth Hurst
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What is it? 

The Internet of Things sounds like nothing more than a techy buzzword, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means: “the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.” 

Many people laugh at the concept. “Does that mean my toaster connects to wifi and wishes me good morning while toasting my morning bagel automatically?”, you might ask. Well, that’s not too far off actually. The first internet-connected toaster was actually unveiled at a conference in 1989—the result of a bet. In 1991 a small robotic crane was added that inserted bread into the “system” (i.e. the franken-toaster) thus automating the system end to end. Progress.

 Things have moved on a lot since then. Now, the Internet of Things (IoT for short) refers to items that have transcended their humble mechanical status to be connected to the internet, or objects that “talk” to each other wirelessly. Devices are connected together, from simple sensors to more complex tech, to form part of a network. But why? 

The backbone of the IoT is cold, hard data. Gathering it, creating it, analysing it, building upon it, enacting change because of it. This can be on a small scale, for example to help one person track their sleep, or on a huge scale with entire smart cities running seamlessly on IoT data. The information that IoT collects can help to automate systems, make tasks (as well as lives) more efficient, and produce learnings that teach us new things about the ways we work and live.    

Analyst firm Gartner estimates that by 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices in the world. That may sound like a lot of connections, but others even estimate this number as even higher—at over 100 billion. The IoT network is a result of widely-available broadband internet, increased smartphone usage, tech costs decreasing and more devices being created with WiFi capabilities—and is only set to grow.

IoT in business 

Typewriters became laptops. Fax machines became obsolete thanks to email. Now, IoT is transforming the way that businesses operate and employees work. 

IoT has already transformed the outlook for manufacturing. One study by PWC estimates that 35% of US manufacturers are using data from smart sensors within their set-ups already. Sensors on production lines are able to cut down waste, make production faster and reduce the risk of human error. Inventory can be tracked and managed on a large scale. The implications of this mean businesses can save time, money, and even reduce their emissions. 

There are safety implications of IoT, such as sensors that let people know when products are not working as they should be. US firm Concrete Sensors has created a device that can be inserted into concrete that provides data on the condition of the material. The efficiency that IoT provides is permeating non-technical industries, such as the sensors that monitor crops and animals in farming.   

Marketing also massively benefits from IoT, as more and more advertising budget is spent on digital adverts. A combination of being plugged into multiple platforms and more data points being accessible to marketers means better user experience all around. Ads can be personalised and curated, targeted towards the people who will respond to them most, and shown to them across different platforms at specific moments. Sound scary? It’s already happening.

Though IoT in business may seem to only apply on a larger scale, there are actually aspects of IoT that are already impacting the workplace for the individual. Connected devices has allowed remote working to flourish, allowing people to leave the office and work flexibly, making workers happier and more productive. Business functions improve as a result of nurturing staff wellbeing. 

The possibilities for IoT are endless—what if your office equipment knew when it was running low on supplies and automatically ordered more? Or if a wearable device could give you valid data about your productivity levels throughout the day, and suggestions how to improve it? For every benefit, there is a darker, almost dystopian flipside. The data points collected aren’t always for the good of the employee. No one wants your company access card data to schedule a meeting with your manager over your personal toilet break frequency report.

IoT at Home

In 2014, sci-fi show Black Mirror released a seasonal episode entitled ‘White Christmas’. A character played by Jon Hamm talks of his job training “cookies” of people—digital clones of individuals stored within small egg-shaped objects in the home that act as personal assistants to their IRL selves. The “cookie” is controls items around the house—opening the blinds in the morning, playing perfectly-chosen music as the human wakes up, preparing breakfast and answering queries about the day’s itinerary. When the episode was released, this scene may have seemed unbelievable. Now, many people can relate, thanks to the IoT devices that have made their way into our homes.

One of the most popular IoT devices making its way into our hearts, homes and minds is the smart speaker—the most popular being the Amazon Echo assistant, commonly known as Alexa. It has been estimated that more than 100 million devices with the Alexa programme have been sold to date. 

Alexa has the capability to connect to more than 28,000 smart home devices, from fridges to televisions to microwaves. Utter your command and bam, the lights are dimmed, your favourite Spotify playlist is on, and your groceries are being delivered via Amazon Prime’s two-hour delivery.

One obvious application of IoT is in home heating and energy usage. Smart meters have been massively pushed by the government as a way to make our energy usage more efficient. Bills are more accurate, and in theory, people may be more likely to save energy if they can get data in real time about their usage habits. Both the planet and people’s pockets benefit. 

Seemingly mundane objects are revolutionised by IoT and technological advances. Smart doorbells with cameras allow homeowners to see who’s at their door via their smartphone, even if they’re nowhere near the house. Some smart key systems allow you to grant access to people remotely, monitor who’s coming and going, and never worry about forgetting your key ever again. Smart fridges order food for you online, let you see what you’ve already purchased with inbuilt cameras, and can even switch the oven on for you to preheat before you arrive home. The possibilities for the next home IoT objects are endless.

Who’s regulating the IoT?

The current problems with IoT are largely hypothetical. The more devices that connect to the internet, the bigger the potential issues further down the line. Privacy is many people’s main concern; any device that is connected to the internet can be hacked. All IoT products—yes, even your smart home fragrance system—have the potential to draw hackers in without the right safeguarding.

Samsung’s Open Economy report finds that the need to secure every connected device by 2020 is “critical”, saying "there is a very clear danger that technology is running ahead of the game". They estimate that more than 7.3 billion devices will need to be made secure before this time.

As billions of devices become connected, what can people and organisations do to make sure their sensitive information stays secure? The reality is that even if the majority of devices have tight security settings, the very essence of a connected network means that the delicate, protected information on one device may be compromised thanks to another. This was the case in 2016, when IoT botnets—created using a network of out-of-date devices—took many of the world’s largest websites and services offline. Chinese manufacturer Hangzhou Xiongmai Technology later recalled 4.3 million unsecured connected cameras. 

In an incident with less malicious intent, the internet slowed or even stopped for nearly the entire eastern United States, all because three college kids were trying to cheat at the computer game Minecraft. Toy manufacturer VTech lost videos and pictures of children using their connected devices thanks to unsecured IoT systems. Wired made a video of hackers hijacking a jeep from miles away. As more devices connect to the IoT network, the risk only increases and there is not yet a required set of standards or regulations that companies must adhere to.

The need for regulation for the Internet of Things isn’t wholly negative. As IoT objects at their core need to speak to one another to transfer data and share their findings, devices that run on different standards cannot communicate with each other. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Standards Association lists a huge number of standards being developed and worked on for different applications. Meanwhile, Microsoft has introduced a system called Azure IoT Central that provides businesses with a managed central platform to set up IoT devices, simplifying the creation of IoT networks.

Tech companies are not alone in attempting to safeguard Internet of Things devices. Ahead of potential legislation, the governmental department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport launched a five-week consultation on regulatory proposals on consumer IoT security and released a Code of Practice for manufacturers, retailers, consumers and consumer groups. The government encourages manufacturers and retailers to sign up to commit to the code, while also providing guidance for consumers to help them safely set up and manage smart devices within their homes while keeping their information safe.

Doo-Wop (That (Internet of) Things)

For every possible negative of IoT devices, there is an equal positive to consider. Watches no longer just tell us the time—they can collect data about our health and habits. This data could be used against us, but it could also trigger dialing 999 when it detects abnormal heart rhythms in a vulnerable user with heart disease. Health is the area with the biggest potential to save lives, but it also poses the biggest risk with our sensitive data.

If information is power then IoT is the battery. It isn’t hard to imagine smart cities where every method of public transport, every shopping experience, every service is efficiently automated by a series of smart devices. IoT has the technology to propel humanity further than ever, but what happens when a security oversight results in entire continents shutting down? Maybe we should stick to making our toast the old-fashioned way—for now at least.

 

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