The Internet of Things (IoT) is a concept which has been around for decades, and was first discussed as early as 1982. Over the past few years, we’ve heard more and more about ‘smart’ devices and objects, smart homes, even smart cities – yet most of us are still unfamiliar with the idea.
So, what’s the idea behind it? Essentially, it’s about connecting objects (aka Things) to a global wireless network (aka the Internet) as well as connecting them to one another, thus enabling them to share and collect information and creating an ‘Internet of Things’.
Need an example? Think of a smart fridge, equipped with cameras and sensors inside and connected to your smartphone via an app, which could alert you when you were almost out of milk, remind you of your shopping list, and allow you to monitor its energy usage. You might also have heard of smart energy meters, which are expected to be made available to every British household by 2020 – they’ll be able to send digital meter readings directly to your energy supplier, and allow you to better understand your gas or electricity usage.
As it develops, the Internet of Things will allow for more and more connections and bigger networks: smart cities, industries, healthcare… We take a look at the future of the IoT now.
There’s no doubt the IoT will change the way we live, from the most banal tasks – like making coffee in the morning – to ultra high-tech networks analysing and connecting data from thousands of devices around a city. But let’s focus on the banal first; the average person (you, me, the lady across the street) will probably be most affected by the Internet of Things in their homes, and at work.
Our homes are already getting smarter. Most of our computers, mobile phones, tablets, and even TVs are connected to Wi-Fi and able to exchange data between each other, as well as store and share data on the Cloud. With the Internet of Things, every appliance in our kitchen could be linked to that network: smart coffee makers became available not too long ago, allowing users to program and schedule the appliance to brew coffee just in time for breakfast, and adjust the amount of cups they want, the strength of the coffee, and more.
But it’s not all about intelligent coffee machines and fridges: the IoT could also be used for home security. You could connect your CCTV cameras to an app on your phone and receive an alert when they detected activity inside your house – they could even automatically contact the local police in the event of a burglary. Connected devices such as TV or computers could also let you know if they were removed from your house, while a smart front door could alert you if it’s been opened while you’re away... The possibilities are endless.
The Internet of Things will also transform your workplace – from your boss being able to remotely control the office’s thermostat to changing the way meetings and conference calls are made. But the industries that will benefit the most from a connected network of devices are the manufacturing and agricultural industries. In fact, some companies have already started implementing smarter ways of monitoring and tracking their tools, machines, crops, or cattle in order to boost efficiency.
Having every object in your house rely on the same wireless network raises the issue of both safety and reliability: is your data protected from potential intrusions (hackings), and what happens if the Internet goes down?
Petnet, a company that sells smart pet feeders which dispense food at set times during the day, recently had a bit of a nightmare: their central server went down earlier this week, causing the feeders the stop serving the food at the times users had scheduled and leaving pets to go hungry for a few hours. However, the issues were resolved once the Internet connection had been restored – so it’s really not a much bigger deal than simply having the Internet router go down for a few hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon: mostly annoying, and potentially a little dangerous in the case of Petnet, but no major harm was done.
The other issue, aka the potential security risks associated with wireless connections, should also be considered. Although it’s fairly unlikely that your smart heater or fridge will be hacked, just like you’re probably safe from anyone hacking into your personal computer, if smart homes and IoT-connected appliances ever start to present a real financial benefit for cyber-crime, someone will probably try to hack into them.
The Internet of Things isn’t big enough just yet to be of any interest to criminals – but as it develops and is adopted by businesses and governments, stronger security measures might need to be implemented.
Sure, a ‘smart city’ sounds a little like something out of a dystopian science-fiction novel where cities and machines have become sentient and are now set on destroying humanity, but it’s actually much better (and safer) than that.
Some ideas to make cities smarter and more connected include smart street lighting: street lamps could switch themselves off when no one is around in order to save energy, and collect information on travel patterns to better understand how people get around and maximise the use of foot paths and bicycle lanes. You could also attach sensors to buildings to measure air pollution, noise levels, etc. Using the Internet of Things in urban areas could also help with traffic regulation – with automated intersection management using self-driving cars, effectively getting rid of traffic lights, and data collection allowing city officials to monitor areas with the most traffic jams and implement solutions.
However, it will probably take some time for cities to develop into ‘smart’ cities -but as technology advances, our lives should undoubtedly be made easier by the Internet of Things.