Prepare to be disrupted by the Internet of Things

With each year that passes the Internet of Things gets bigger and bigger, but we’re only just beginning to see what this technology is capable of: 2016 could be the year that it really takes off. We investgate how connectivity is set to increase in the next twelve months and beyond

The Internet of Things (IoT) will continue to grow in 2016, there’s no doubt about that. But at the end of next year we could either be looking at more smart appliances, which means the marketplace will be flooded with smart keys, smart fire alarms and lots of sensors that want to talk to your boiler, or we could have gone – or be on the cusp of going – really smart, with smart concrete that can identify the structural integrity of a building or smart self-driving public transportation systems.

That’s the thing with the IoT: the possibilities are endless. Essentially, the IoT is a series of sensors that monitor, scrutinise and exchange data without the need for human interference. This technology isn’t new, the IoT entered Gartner’s – the research and advisory company – Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies in 2011, but it’s still considered a technology that organisations should monitor and according to consultancy firm McKinsey the industry could be worth as much as $11 trillion a year by 2025.

The reason that it is included amongst emerging technologies and why such massive growth is predicted is because we’re only at the very beginning of realising this technology’s capability. What we’re all waiting for is for the IoT to explode, with smart sensors taking over your city.

Once that happens modern life as we know it will change. Not just because we will be living in smart, futuristic cities but also because all these smart suppliers will have streams of data – and that may be the real attraction of the IoT.

IoT 2.0

The real potential of IoT will come to fruition with version 2.0, which will bring widespread industrial adoption

For the IoT to reach the stage where it is a ubiquitous, all-encompassing technology, a couple of factors need to be realised. Firstly, developers need to time to implement bigger and more audacious projects. The technology that is available today can be used to create functional and impressive IoT products. The fact that your thermostat can predict what temperature you like your home to be is a pretty amazing thing. But the IoT has the potential to be the most disruptive technological shift in the near future, and we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of how big it can actually be.

“The real potential of IoT will come to fruition with version 2.0, which will bring widespread industrial adoption,” says senior technology marketing specialist at Imagination Technologies Alexandru Voica.   “Smart cities is an area I’m particularly interested in, and seeing how the infrastructure will upgrade to create smart energy grids, self-driving public transportation systems, or truly digital hospitals and e-health.”

Just imagine your commute to work when your smart car is able to communicate with smart traffic-monitoring technology. Information detected by sensors will be analysed and transmitted, in real-time, meaning that information about traffic flow, poor road conditions, optimised routes and the performance of the car can be fed to the driver. We will have the ability to monitor data that has a real and considerable impact on our daily lives.

But moving the IoT onto the next level isn’t just a question of vision; there are also practical obstacles that need to be overcome. Increased internet traffic caused by more and more IoT devices being available is an issue that will need to be resolved before the IoT can become a ubiquitous product.

“There are immediate ways of tackling this problem and long-term strategies. One of the main requirements of IoT will be heterogeneous connectivity: while WPAN standards such as Bluetooth, ZigBee, 6LoWPAN, Z-Wave and others work for applications requiring short range connectivity or cable replacement, LTE Cat 0 and Cat 1 are a perfect fit for devices that need long range connectivity (WWAN), ubiquitous coverage and high reliability,” says Voica.

“In the long term, the adoption of standards such as 5G will provide the additional bandwidth needed for wide IoT deployment. I have a strong belief that IoT version 2.0 and 5G will happen almost simultaneously.”

The danger with data

To work effectively the IoT will need to analyse data in real-time. But that means that it will be collecting and storing large amounts of information, and while most of that will probably be meaningless, all data can be used to provide insights into someone’s world.

But just as there is no clear agreement on how big the IoT can be; there is also no consensus about the amount of care we should place on the data IoT devices collect.

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“My thermostat can reveal my callous attitude to the threat of global warming and my toaster can reveal my uncaring view of what happens to my waistline, and doubtless there are other devices that will reveal who I am having an affair with and what my income might be … but I haven’t bought one of these,” says security researcher at the University of Cambridge, Dr Richard Clayton. “If they’re planning to track what I watch on that TV in order to improve the adverts in the commercial break then this doesn’t sound especially convincing either.”

For Clayton, the threat posed by data isn’t a significant one. But imagine if the data collected by IoT devices was used to increase insurance premiums, or how often you use your smart meter was used to predict when you were at home. Although the data in isolation is harmless and not particularly sensitive, all data can be useful and provide an indication of a person’s life if it falls into the right – or wrong – hands.

The IoT is potentially too big and too valuable for it to not to continue growing exponentially. But writer and Open Rights Group advisory council member Wendy M Grossman is less sanguine about the possible repercussions of advances in IoT technology.

“For now, as far as I am aware, consumers really don’t have much choice other than not to buy ‘smart’ devices. I think people should think it through: do you really need your TV to respond to voice commands?” he asks.

“And consider the tradeoffs: you buy a Google Nest thermostat because you like the idea of being able to save energy and adding convenience by controlling your heating system remotely, but is that small convenience worth the tradeoff of having Google retain all the data about how your household uses heat?

“I’d like people to get in the habit of seeing the manufacturer’s presence as an intermediary when they assess these devices. When you buy an iPhone, you’re inviting Apple to watch your life.”

Man and machine

You’re accessing all of human knowledge which resides on millions of computers

Even the big innovations, such as smart infrastructure and smart transportation systems are small compared to what the IoT is capable of. Because, if all the IoT consists of is a series of data-gathering sensors, then we can collect and use data that adds real value to people’s lives.

For instance, what if we sent little sensors through a person’s blood stream to augment their immune system, or how about we add sensors to the neocortex, giving instant access to the cloud and turning us into hybrid biological and non-biological beings?

While that might sound farfetched, this is essentially the way our current devices work. “Almost all of the things you do don’t take place within the device it goes out to the cloud,” said author, computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil. “You’re accessing all of human knowledge which resides on millions of computers”

The jump from the current state of IoT to a future where we become part man and part machine may appear to be some way off at this stage, but it really isn’t. As Kurzweil pointed out: “Every time we reach the end of some paradigm, it creates research pressure to create the next paradigm.”

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It seems the only thing that can possibly stop up being swept up by the IoT revolution is bad publicity and negative public opinion. While the technology is almost there, nobody knows at this point how people will feel about having their body invaded by sensors.  And any negative press the current iteration of IoT devices garner will impact on future versions of the technology.

“My main concern about IoT is that many of the devices are going to be insecure or poorly configured. For every instance of ‘Russians can look at your babycam’ we’re going to see a dozen of ‘one line program disables every fire alarm in local hospital’,” says Clayton.

The Internet of Things is potentially the most disruptive technological advancement in our lifetime, and the industry is so valuable in monetary terms and as an opportunity for human advancement that it will continue to grow exponentially. While some of the applications for its use seem farfetched, it really is a case of when, not if, the fully realised vision for the IoT is everywhere.

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