What is the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things or IoT simply means taking all the things in the world and connecting them to the Internet. Think about the device you’re using to read this article right now. It may be a desktop or laptop PC, a tablet, or a mobile phone, but whatever it is, it’s definitely connected to the Internet. We’ve become accustomed to having our computers and phones connected to the Internet, but as time goes on, more and more of our devices will be connected.
Almost any physical object can be transformed into an IoT device if it can be connected to the Internet. Some of them are simple, such as a light bulb that can be controlled through a smartphone app. Others might be more complex, such as a driverless car or a jet engine that’s filled with thousands of sensors. The term Internet of Things is mostly used with devices that you wouldn’t expect to be connected to the Internet, so things like computers and smartphones are not included. But almost any other device counts.
Why would I want all my things connected to the Internet?
Think about the differences between a smartphone and a regular cell phone. A regular phone might be fine for making calls and sending text messages, but that’s about all it can do. Nowadays, people have much higher expectations. We take it for granted that we can stream any movie or song, access any website, and use a wide range of apps.
IoT is important because when something is connected to the Internet, it means it can send and/or receive information. Things that are connected to the Internet can be broken into three categories:
- Things that collect and send information
- Things that receive and act on information.
- Things that both collect and receive information.
Things that collect and send information
Sensors collect and send information. There are many types of sensors, such as temperature sensors, motion sensors, moisture sensors, air quality sensors, light sensors, etc. These sensors can be set up to automatically collect and send information about their surroundings. With this information, people are equipped to make better decisions.
For example, farmers can use moisture sensors to determine when their crops need to be watered. Temperature sensors can be used to automatically adjust the heat and air conditioning. Motion sensors can be used to determine if people are in a room. Sensors allow computers to make sense of the world.
Things that receive and act on information
You are probably familiar with many machines that receive and act on information. A printer receives a document and then prints it. A car receives a signal from car keys and the doors unlock. Many machines can be given commands and then perform specific tasks.
Things that both collect and receive information
This is where the real power of the Internet of Things comes into play. Imagine the farmer with the moisture sensors that determine when the crops need to be watered. That information can be passed on to the farmer, who can then make more informed decisions. But the farmer actually is not needed. Instead, the irrigation system can be set to automatically turn on when it’s needed. If it receives weather information from being connected to the Internet, then it can decide not to water the crops if it’s expected to rain soon.
Of course, it can go much further than that. Other sensors can be used to collect information on how much the crops are getting watered, how well the crops are growing, light sensors, air quality sensors, temperature sensors, etc. and pass this information on to computers that make sense of all the information. With lots of farms collecting this information, computers can help determine the optimal conditions for growing crops and increase food output.
A Brief History of the Internet of Things
People had the idea to add sensors and basic intelligence to simple objects in the 1980s and 1990s, and some would even argue that there are earlier ancestors. But there wasn’t much progress in the area because the technology wasn’t ready. We needed to develop inexpensive processors before it could be cost effective to connect extra devices.
The development of RFID tags helped with the cost issue. These are low-power chips that can communicate wirelessly. The increasing availability of broadband Internet connections and wireless networks has also helped. Another factor was the adoption of IPv6. This ensures that there are enough IP addresses for every device in the world.
Kevin Ashton, a British technology pioneer who co-founded the Auto-ID Center at MIT, is credited with coining the phrase “Internet of Things” in 1999. The Auto-ID Center’s goal was to create a global open standard system to put RFID everywhere. “The IoT integrates the interconnectedness of human culture — our ‘things’ — with the interconnectedness of our digital information system — ‘the internet.’ That’s the IoT,” according to Ashton.
One of the first IoT applications was adding RFID tags to expensive pieces of equipment to track their locations. The cost of adding sensors and an Internet connection to objects has kept dropping, making it possible to connect more and more things to the Internet. The fields of business and manufacturing were two of the earliest to get involved with IoT, but the emphasis nowadays is on filling homes and offices with smart devices.
How big is the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things is already massive, with a Gartner report estimating 20.6 billion connected devices by 2020. This is nearly triple the entire population. Some of the most popular categories for IoT devices are: smart home, wearables, connected cars, industrial Internet, smart cities, agriculture, smart retail, energy engagement, healthcare, and poultry and farming.
Consumers are most likely to encounter IoT devices in the smart home. Google Home and Amazon Echo are smart speakers that make it easy to play music, set timers, and get information. Home security systems make it easier to monitor our homes and talk with visitors. Other devices like smart plugs, light bulbs, thermostats, and the smart fridge are also becoming more popular.
Wearables are another popular consumer category of IoT devices. They are used primarily for simple tasks, such as checking the time and tracking exercise. While they are not great for browsing the web or typing messages, they definitely have a future in healthcare. Wearable devices can passively monitor heart rate, glucose levels, blood pressure, and more.
Privacy and Security Concerns
According to Steve Ranger, “security is one of the biggest issues with the IoT.” Sensors in our homes are collecting sensitive data, such as what we say and do. IoT’s security track record has been “extremely poor,” with many IoT devices giving “little thought to basics of security, like encrypting data in transit and at rest.”
Many flaws in software are discovered on a regular basis. Many IoT devices do not have the capability to be patched, so they will be at risk permanently. Flaws have left some smart home devices, such as refrigerators, ovens, and dishwashers, open to hackers. In 2017, Danny Palmer reported that 175,000 IoT webcams can be easily hacked. Internet-connected smartwatches for children “have been found to contain security vulnerabilities that allow hackers to track the wearer’s location, eavesdrop on conversations, or even communicate with the user.”
There are many privacy concerns, with all these sensors collecting information on everything we do. In a fully-connected smart home, data is being collected on when you wake up, how well you brush your teeth, what music you listen to, what food you eat, what you talk about, who visits you and passes by your house, and more. It’s crucial that people make informed decisions about what data they are comfortable with sharing, and what they would like to keep private. For companies selling these products, it’s important to build trust with consumers.
Supriya and Padaki, researchers involved in data security, identified four security objectives that IoT requires: data confidentiality, data integrity, non-repudiation, and data availability.
It is becoming more and more cost-effective to add additional devices to the Internet of Things. This is happening even in areas where the benefit to consumers is not immediately obvious. Many companies are still in the early stages of engaging with IoT, as sensor technology, 5G, and machine-learning powered analytics are themselves in the relatively early stages of development.
Steve Symanovich of Symantec has shared some predictions about the future of IoT: Cybercriminals will continue to use IoT devices to facilitate DDoS attacks. More cities will become “smart.” Artificial intelligence will continue to become a bigger thing. Routers will continue to become more secure and smarter. 5G networks will continue to fuel IoT growth. Cars will get even smarter. Security and privacy concerns will drive legislation and regulatory activity.
According to a Cisco report, IoT products will generate $14.4 trillion in value across all industries in the next decade. Experts are predicting additional security mishaps over the next few years, but the technology is here to stay. Our living and working environments will become more and more filled with smart products.