Living in the Internet of Things era

By Elena Nisioti
Living in the Internet of Things era

Back in 1926 Tesla envisioned something that sounded suspiciously similar to what we today call the Internet of Things (IoT). To him, the ability of devices to transmit wirelessly would naturally lead to an interconnected world of instruments, a technological brain present in our mere pockets.

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole .… and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

Nikola Tesla

IoT is not so much of a discovery, as a continuous evolution of the presence of cyber devices in our physical world. It is often argued that the IoT era begun between 2008 and 2009, when the number of devices connected to the internet exceeded the world population. However, to fully understand this phenomenon, we need to take a look at more recent discoveries. Today, the internet of things is not just about the internet and not just about things.

The commercial Internet of Things

Admittedly, the first example that comes to mind when talking about IoT is the abundance of smartphones and wearables that people today associate with activities of their everyday life. Although smart-phones primarily collect and share information through the internet, there is a variety of technologies that enabled the proliferation of commercial IoT. Close-range transmission for the communication between wearables and smartphones is performed using Bluetooth or RFID.  Simple, yet powerful, microcontrollers, such as an Arduino, can be used to convert our homes to temples of automation, where every kitchen appliance can be remotely controlled and preprogrammed, or, as we call them, smart-homes.

The industrial Internet of Things

However, industrial Iot, often referred to as IΙoT, is where the high stakes are. The transport, energy and industrial sectors, such as the healthcare industry, have been impacted by the IoT so heavily due to the extensive use of sensors and other physical instruments, that they have experienced what we often call a digital transformation. Real-time, reliant, massive communication is immensely important when one realizes that applications in this area are related to autonomous driving or energy production at a national level.

What’s new in IoT technology?

There is a variety of factors that led to the evolution of IoT and an ever-increasing variety of factors that will fuel it in the future. To begin with, this proliferation of connected devices would not have been possible if it weren’t for the ability of technological companies to produce low-cost, efficient instruments with internet-connectivity. The improvement of communication technologies, with 5G ensuring fast and almost ubiquitous connectivity, enabled the vast employment of these devices. Today, advances in Big Data analysis and Artificial Intelligence, make it possible to take advantage of the enormous amount of data collected by IoT, as well as design automated systems that can adapt to their environment without human intervention. It only takes a look at IBM’s cognitive IoT platform to realize the potential of this technology.

The internet of problems

If your devices have the ability to connect to the internet, then the internet has the ability to connect to your devices as well. This means that your smart-phone, kitchen appliances or you future self-driving car, can be compromised and controlled by a hacker. Although companies struggle to provide products with safety guarantees, communication over the internet is inherently vulnerable. The situation becomes even worse, when one considers the fact that the majority of devices run on outdated and unprotected software, as is the case with a surprising large number of Android smartphones. The above vulnerabilities suggest that IoT can be harmful both for the security and privacy of consumers and industries.

There is another caveat in the fast and bottom-up evolution of IoT. As different companies enter the IoT scenery by introducing their products and data into the market, little effort has so far been given into designing common interfaces. By employing different communication protocols and storing their information in custom formats, they have created an internet of things that is as fragmented as the market. Specialists warn that this can lead to a Digital Babel, where ubiquitous computing will not be possible to achieve.

A shift of focus

Cisco recently introduced a term that created a slight confusion: the Internet of Everything (IoE). As IoT already includes all possible devices, IoE is often used as a synonym for IoT. A simple re-branding of the existing technology. However, IoE signifies an essential shift in the business practice of IoT. It captures a broader view of the concept of interconnection, by laying importance equally on things, people and processes and trying to devise intelligent connections among them. By motivating a less passive approach to the adoption of new technologies, it comes in contrast to traditional, conservative business approaches. In the IoE era, waiting for new technologies to enter and disrupt the market, and then, incorporating them into business policies will no longer be a sustainable approach.

When Amazon introduced and popularized Amazon Echo, it made an important step towards ambient computing. In the past, connecting to the internet meant that you were sitting in front of a computer. Then came smartphones, and people were able to be online from practically everywhere. When virtual assistants, such as Siri, entered the market, connectivity became even more seamless, as all you needed was to speak to your phone. But the ultimate goal of IoT technology is to “be in the air”. To not change our environment, but become part of it. Tesla talked about our instruments being particles of the earth, remember?