via Michael Podger (unsplash)

An Outsider’s Reflections on IoT

Spontaneously attended NJTC IoT conference at Princeton University after a friend from the New Brunswick Office of Innovation hooked me up with a free ticket. As someone who doesn’t keep such a close eye on the IoT ecosystem this was a good chance to brush up on it. Ended up spending my whole day digging into the latest.

What actually is the Internet of Things?

Like most emerging technology, the term IoT is extremely difficult to put in a box. This is mostly because it’s tough to decouple what is market-ready and a promise of the IoT vision — something which is still constantly redefined. This sentiment was clearly exemplified by the conference presenters and attendees. It’s not that anyone there wasn’t qualified but rather the conference covered such a disparate range of topics — from wearables to supply chain monitoring and home appliances to connected cities — that I’m not sure I walked away with anything concrete. Hell there were even a handful of plain ol’ mobile app companies.

So really the short answer is that it’s another buzzword that tells you practically nothing.

Perhaps a more satisfying answer is that IoT is what is bridges the physical and digital world. The internet of things is putting a computer into everyday objects to program them and connect them to the world wide web. The idea being that there are lots of objects that could benefit from consuming external data — clothes adapting to weather, utilities automatically scheduling maintenance, lights and thermostats that know when you’re present. IoT is intended to make devices work together to automate tasks.


Go where the puck is going, not where it is

We’re still a long way from the vision. It’s not enough just adding a chip to everything — we can’t forget it’s about creating new solutions to problems that weren’t possible before the devices could sense, communicate and work together.

IoT is typically thought of as a consumer trend, but it will largely consist of business process automation — not connecting toasters to iphones. 
 — dreamdu5t, HackerNews

Industrial IoT is not nearly as sexy as smart homes but will arguably have a much bigger impact. Industry has already had a huge head start, with millions of IoT devices in the field, monitoring and controlling electrical, transport, logistical, agricultural, manufacturing and other infrastructure.

Imagine every step of an industrial process (resource gathering, processing, logistics, manufacturing, assembly) becoming much more efficient, intelligent, and autonomous. The cost of producing things is going to drop significantly while quality increases.
 — moatmoatmoat, /r/explainlikeimfive

Challenges

New technology doesn’t come without vehement skeptics whose concerns are worth noting. There’s even a hilarious Twitter account dedicated to satirical examples of IoT gone wrong, aptly named InternetOfShit. (Check out some of their greatest hits.) It’s creator also recently released a great post on IoT’s Dirty Little Secret:

The problem with the Internet of Things is that the hardware is only one aspect. The makers need to keep servers running to support them, keep APIs up to date, keep security up to date and, well, pay employees.

The IoT dream also assumes a wide variety of privacy issues that come with all this device data streamed to someone else’s servers:

With Amazon, Google, GE, HP, IBM and Microsoft all piling on to provide IoT infrastructure, there is either going to be consolidation or collaboration on standards. It’s easy to secure devices to the current standards of today, but even with over-the-air software updates, new hardware is coming out at a breakneck pace — a huge shift for consumers expecting traditional devices that can be used for years.

Decentralize all the Things

Perhaps the most difficult part is that all these new devices demand infrastructure and security.

Reliance on the Internet is holding back IoT. Centralization creates stability but it doesn’t scale. The future of IoT are local mesh networks that decentralize device logic.
 — Joe Aranda, August Smart Lock

To me, an integral a role in making IoT more secure will be the blockchain, an emerging decentralized database promising to introduce peer-to-peer trust without the intervention of a third party. I will have to go more indepth on this subject on a later post but do check out some links in the further reading section below.

IBM research

Whether there are hiccups along the way, all the devices around us are moving towards getting connected. Best to wrap up with a thought that Jay Shapiro shared at yesterday’s conference: IoT doesn’t really exist. And if it does, it won’t exist in the future — we will know it has finally arrived when we all stop talking about it.

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Further Reading:

Here’s a pretty comprehensive (and pretty!) infographic on IoT

If you want to be an early adopter of some of this emerging IoT tech, check out these sites for cool products:

IBM has a great series of presentations on IoT:

Good reads on the intersection Blockchain/IoT:

Slock.it and IOTA are emerging blockchain supported IoT platforms that are worth checking out:

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