In one vision of the future, every “thing” is connected to the internet. This “Internet of Things” will bring about revolutionary change in how we interact with our environment and, more importantly, how we live our lives.
The idea of everything being connected to the internet is not new, but it’s increasingly becoming a reality. The Internet of Things came into being in 2008 when the number of things connected to the internet was greater than the number of people who were connected.
The technical utopians have portrayed the Internet of Things as a good thing that will bring untold benefits. They are supported by all the companies that stand to benefit by the increasing connectedness of everything.
Universal connectivity, sensors and computers that are able to collect, analyse and act on this data will bring about improvements in health, food production. In a roundabout way, it might even alleviate poverty. Even our efforts to battle global warming would benefit from the Internet of Things.
On the other side are the sceptics who warn of the dangers inherent in not only having an ever growing Internet of Things, but our increasing reliance on it.
The problems range from the difficulties in actually scaling the internet to be capable of supporting the vast number of things, how these things (and the internet itself) are powered, through to issues of security, privacy and safety.
How many things are connected?
The parallel change is that the human-generated data being transported on the internet will be dwarfed by the data being generated by machines.
In fact, much of this communication will be between machines. Again, Cisco estimates that by the end of this year, 20 typical households could generate more traffic than the traffic of the entire internet in 2008.
What are we connecting?
The Internet of Things is not just about devices that are directly connected to the internet. Sensors and identifiers such as RFID (radio frequency identification) tags also provide data through an intermediary such as a mobile phone, RFID reader, or internet-connected base station.
This means an RFID-tagged cereal box may be considered as one of the “things” on the internet. Theoretically, the RFID would have been used in conjunction with other sensors to record the full life-history of that particular box of cereal, from the time it was manufactured to how it was transported and how long it took for it to be empty.
Sparked, a company in the Netherlands, has developed a sensor that measures a cow’s vital signs as well as movement and interactions with other cows. The sensor will transmit approximately 200MB of data per cow every year to allow farmers to monitor the health and wellbeing of their herds.
Sensors in the home and in cars are becoming ubiquitous. A modern car may have as many as 200 sensors, measuring everything from engine performance to tyre pressures. The data are being collected and analysed by on-board computers connected to the car’s internal network.
These data can now be communicated to the internet and made available to not only the driver of the car but also to companies that own or manage it on the driver’s behalf. The sensor data can be used to detect problems but also to give statistics on the use of the car.
Tied in with real-time artificial intelligence, the car’s network could be providing the driver with feedback and advice, and interacting with the internet for route information, for example.
Cars and houses are not the only things being wired up with sensors. There are numerous devices that monitor blood pressure, heart rate, levels of hormones and blood components and the like.
Sensors are now being connected directly to the internet or to a smart phone and stored in the Cloud for monitoring and analysis. Again, the estimates are that there will be about 400 million wearable wireless sensors by 2014.
And the catch?
Everybody who has experienced that moment when a computer or phone has defeated all your attempts to do something basic such as connecting to a wireless network. At times like these, it’s hard to imagine a technology-driven utopian world in which billions of devices are all communicating seamlessly and controlling everything around us to improve our lives.
But it really isn’t as simple as that. The recent major outage of the BlackBerry Messaging Network serves as a reminder that something as relatively simple as delivering messages from one phone to another, over a network that is supposed to be robust and fault-tolerant, can still be difficult to get right.
NetGear’s Connected Lifestyle Survey has recently shown that in Australia, there are 18 million internet-enabled devices that are not connected. These devices include TVs, games consoles, music and media players.
It’s not clear from the report, though, if they are not connected because of the technical difficulty in connecting them or simply because the owners didn’t know or care about the benefits of doing so. Clearly the growth and sustainability of the Internet of Things will not be able to rely on the ordinary consumer for connectivity and maintenance.
A recent blog on The Economist highlights issues with the infrastructure, privacy and the danger of a catastrophic failure in an Internet of Things world. Perhaps the most pressing of concerns Schumpeter raises is that of who will end up owning and controlling the data from the Internet of Things.
We are rapidly proceeding to a point where the range of data being collected can literally be used to reconstruct a person’s life. The privacy issues brought about by the Internet of Things will make concerns about our interactions on social media giants such as Facebook seem trivial by comparison.
The recent furore over the German Government’s use of spyware to watch its citizens is also a harbinger of the amount of information that can be obtained by controlling connectedness to the internet.
The Internet of Things can ultimately be used for the benefit or detriment of individuals and society as a whole. Although business will argue a whole raft of benefits that include increasing efficiency, safety and health, these need to be balanced by safeguards and controls.
The ethics of mass connectivity have yet to be developed.