Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is the idea that an application, interface, or system can tracks physical objects in cyberspace. A mini-computer is embedded in, or sometimes attached to, objects that wirelessly connect them to the internet. This allows the user to keep track of information more easily and achieve multiple tasks. These can include shopping, researching, activating, changing, transferring, calling, monitoring, controlling, from the convenience of any connected device, particularly smartphones. It is described as a global system of interconnected computer networks, sensors, and devices that merges the physical world and the virtual world.

It’s hard to imagine, but this development has the potential to change very fundamental things about how we live our lives, given how many devices will be connected to the internet.

A beautiful infographic by Bosch Software

Internet of Things, or IoT, has awe-inspiring potential. With the help of IoT, everyday items become ‘smart’ and develop very interesting capabilities. A particularly cool example is the medical industry- medical tools could have the ability to self-analyze its condition and determine whether they need to be replaced (this has huge implications in engineering machinery, and other tools as well). The vital data of patients can be recorded and evaluated daily using a connected monitor, and transmitted to medical personnel instantly if something is wrong. A shirt or a wristband can keep track of movement, heart rate, and calories burned to encourage people to be healthy.

IoT also can make things simply work more efficiently. Appliances and machines can save energy by automatically adjusting to a lower power output when needed. A wind turbine can self-evaluate and readjust its motion to be more efficient in generating power. And driverless cars can use GPS and built-in sensors to respond to other cars on the road, which may reduce the number of accidents and thus, less traffic and less gas. Indeed, anything can become a ‘smart’ object. Spark Labs, a startup that raised more than $500k on Kickstarter, has created tiny wi-fi development kit that allows users to create their own IoT device by sticking it on the object (the website says that even people who don’t know how to code can create one, but I’m skeptical).

There is a lot of growth in this field, but that means a lot of things to work through. One is the actual network where devices would connect to. Currently, the options are through wi-fi, Bluetooth, or cellular networks. But with the number of new ‘smart’ units that are projected to be installed by 2020- ranging from 25 billion to 50 billion- there will need to be a better infrastructure network. One startup called Helium Systems is looking to create its own network, or “connective tissue” between all those devices by combining low-powered wireless connectivity and a smart distribution network for data coming from those devices. There are many more companies who will be on that game as well. In 2014, Google’s NEST labs launched a “Thread Group” to develop industry-consensus to allow smart household devices to communicate on a network using the internet.

Another difficulty is that for the user, the experience is disjointed. When existing things are networked, the maintenance is not so much the manufactured product, but the web-based service that users access through that device. Each device or system is its own company, its software, and its own support team- and looking at the market, this is a fast growing industry with a lot of players, and it will fall on the consumer to juggle all these different companies. A good example of this issue is how all of the potential ‘smart’ devices in one’s home could be synced- wouldn’t it be nice if the garage door, the fridge, the thermostat, and the faucet could all respond to each other? If they are all owned by different companies and thus, different support systems, it may be more difficult to control them altogether.

Finally, perhaps the biggest issue on people’s minds now is cybersecurity. These small, embedded computers do not have as much processing power as a real-size computer, and thus security software may not be as strong. The possibility of being remotely hacked is a serious one and can have major consequences to private information as well as physical safety. Think of home security systems, driverless cars, webcams- the list goes on. Currently, NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, has a public working group to develop industry consensus around a shared architecture and language for Iot. Google and other tech giants are working together to tackle cybersecurity problems as well, but there is a lot of noise over how to handle these issues as the rate of development stays high.

All in all, the future looks like blue sky. It plays into people’s everyday lives with household items, which are easy to imagine how they would impact people’s lives (and laughs). It can change the way businesses run, how we measure things, and how we interact with the things in our lives. But, with many things, these big moves come with big problems.

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