The Internet of Things Explained: Is It More Hal 9000 Or SkyNet?

Blogs Luke Dormehl Michael Grothaus 15:44, 23 Jul 2014

The Internet of Things. Yep – it's happening. Google's in, and so is Apple. Here's a breakdown of what it means for you

The Internet of Things may be one of the clumsier buzz terms to come out in recent years but it seems to have caught on nonetheless. Originally coined by marketer Kevin Ashton as the title of a 1999 presentation for Procter & Gamble, the term “Internet of Things” has struck a chord with techies over the decade-and-a-half since its inception.

Put simply the Internet of Things is, like the best technology concepts, built on an insight: that humans have limited time and resources to dedicate to our technology, and as it comes to dominate larger and larger portions of our life (how many times have you checked your emails today, for instance?) some of that decision-making could be more usefully handed over to machines. As Kevin Ashton has noted:

“If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things -- using data they gathered without any help from us -- we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.”

Ashton may have given the Internet of Things its name, but he didn’t invent its concept. Anyone that calls themselves a science fiction fan is likely familiar with the kind of “home of the future” TV sitcom episodes that proliferated in the 1970s. Up until now, of course, it hasn’t really happened. Our phones and computers have gotten smarter, but white goods and other tools have remained frustratingly dumb.

2014 might be the year in which that changes, however. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, devices representing the Internet of Things were in full force. From smart air conditioners to wearables, seemingly every company worth its silicon was tripping over its competitors trying to sell us on products that would fundamentally change the way we live, work and play.

Like the Apple ecosystem writ large -- where your iPhone syncs with your iPod Touch, your iMac syncs with your iPad, and all of it asks you to sink more and more money into iTunes and the App Store -- over the coming years a growing amount of our technology will interact not just with ourselves, but also with each other. This will result in a newly intuitive user experience, offering plenty of feedback to “nudge” you in the right direction regarding everything from healthy eating to the best way to swing your golf club.

Anyone doubting that the year’s biggest Internet of Things story would be CES didn’t have to wait long to be proven incorrect. Earlier this year, Google announced that it had acquired Nest, the home device company started by former iPod creator Tony Fadell, for a whopping $3.2 billion. Responsible for the best-selling Nest Learning Thermostat, the acquisition shows how seriously Google is taking the idea of interconnect devices.

Apple is involved in the IOT, too, following the announcement of Homekit at WWDC 2014. Homekit is Apple's Internet of Things platform, and it will co-ordinate various third-party home automation accessories – stuff like door locks, dimmer switches, cat flaps and even your dish washer – via an iPhone or iPad.

With market penetration for Internet search approaching total saturation in countries like the UK and US -- where more than eighty percent of the population is connected to the Web -- in order to expand, companies like Google need to focus on new ways of letting users access their services, and different means by which the Internet can add value to user experience.

Judging from the media response, Google was far from alone in viewing Nest as a major acquisition. In the deal’s aftermath, Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson even ventured that the purchase had helped Google steal the “most innovative” tech company crown from former title holder Apple.

Apple, of course, is keen not to be left behind. While it might have missed out on Nest, it has been a major company involved with the so-called Internet of Places: with technologies such as the iBeacon promising to go one step further than the Internet of Things by transforming our physical environments into connected spaces.  

When is the Internet of Things arriving?

It’s already here on a small scale. Devices like wireless smart food scales, wireless bathroom scales, wireless smart lighting--all that can be controlled from your smartphone--are early examples of the Internet of Things. 

But the real promise of the Internet of Things, where our keys and cars and roads and water pipes and everything else is connected and talking to each other, is about five years away at the earliest. That’s because the Internet of Things revolution of that scale will require massive infrastructure and wireless network improvements. 

Infrastructure, in particular, is a huge thing that is going to need to be addressed before we see the full benefits of the Internet of Things. For starters, not only will all of our traditional “things” (food scales, bicycles, shirts, roads, water pipes, you name it) need to be fitted with some type of wireless sensor, they’ll need a new high-speed wireless data network to talk to one another.

Right now creators of Internet of Things products can get around this lack of a high speed network by keeping things local, the way SITU and Nest does, by using short Bluetooth connectivity or piggybacking on traditional wireless networks. But once the Internet of Things is everywhere – that is every single thing has sensors embedded in them allowing them to “talk” to one another – our current networks like 4G, no matter how fast it seems to us today, won’t be able to cope with the traffic or speed required.

That’s where 5G comes in. 4G has a relatively narrow spectrum, which means it can handle about 2-3 4G devices for every person in the UK. But once every “thing” becomes a device there is no way 4G will be able to handle the load. But 5G can. 5G will not only be able to handle the increased device load, but it will be more stable, faster, and cheaper than 4G.

How many Internet of Things devices will exist in the future?

We’ve heard some variance in the number of IoT products experts predict we will see over the next few years: Gartner predicts that by 2020, we’ll see 26 billion devices connected to the internet. ABI Research states that number will be 30 billion, while Cisco puts it at 50 billion.

That’s a lot. Are there any drawback to the Internet of Things?

There will be tradeoffs we as a society need to think about, debate, and address. In order for the Internet of Things to work well, some devices on it, like health devices, need to know as much about the user as possible. So if we want to reap the benefits of the Internet of Things we need to be willing to give up some of our privacy. The more information these devices can gather about us or our surroundings, the more they’ll be able to do, which will make them more appealing, which will make more people want to buy them, which will make the companies more money--and that’s why the companies are so interested in gathering your data.

It’s a trade off in the end. But the one concern I have about the Internet of Things doesn’t have to do with big corporations – it has to do with terrorism. Once everything is interconnected, how safe will we be from attackers that can shut off our water supply, take control of our cars, or unlock our doors from thousands of miles away? 

Prominent technology skeptic Evgeny Morozov took the Internet of Things (along with other related ideas) to task in his 2013 book To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism -- questioning the accepted belief that it would make life better for its users.  

While I am excited about much of what the Internet of Things has to offer, I also address potential problems with the idea of a technology that aims to better understand you so that you don’t have to understand it in my forthcoming book, The Formula: How Algorithms Solve all our Problems ... and Create More.

In an article last year I coined the term “decimated reality aggregators” to describe the growing number of companies that aim to artificially reduce the number of options available to us by making decisions about what we should be doing on our behalf. Ceding control and autonomy is a part of almost any new technology (consider, for example, how the simple act of writing something down gives it a virtual existence outside of yourself.)

Implemented well, the Internet of Things means that we won’t have to live lives spend fiddling endlessly with technology in order to gain its advantages. Implemented badly, the Internet of Things has the possibility of limiting our choices, common sense and even freedom. As with all technologies, as this becomes increasingly ubiquitous we will have to ask ourselves whether what we gain is worth what we risk losing.

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