From the blockchain to augmented reality, there are many IT developments that have been hailed as ‘the biggest thing since the internet’. The Internet of Things (IoT) is probably the most deserving of this title, as well as being a natural evolution of its world-changing ancestor. Unlike AR, the IoT is already having a substantial effect on our daily lives, and unlike the blockchain and cryptocurrencies (also frequently cited as potentially revolutionary), it doesn’t demand any technical knowledge from its end users.
A defining event
The term ‘internet of things’ is widely attributed to British tech pioneer Kevin Ashton. He was the first to propose a system of wireless RFID signals, connecting sensors to the internet. Like Sir Tim Berners Lee a decade before him, Ashton’s ingenuity inspired others to expand on the principle that mundane objects could easily upload real-time data to an online repository. The rollout of wifi, Bluetooth, and high-speed cellular networking came at the perfect time to support this principle.
Any object with an on-off switch and internet connectivity forms part of the internet of things. Early deployments focused on manufacturing processes and location tracking. However, dwindling production costs saw everything from white goods and thermostats to fitness trackers and door locks being connected. And following an early period of passive data provision, IoT devices are increasingly proactive. They now support two-way communications, along with remote operation.
Simpler yet smarter
Convenience is a cornerstone of the internet of things. Smart security systems permit door entry using smartphone identification or entry codes, generating real-time activity logs and even supporting video conversations with unsolicited callers. None of these functions would be possible without connectivity and the cloud. This is another recent technological development that has underpinned the IoT’s meteoric expansion. Big data is evolving to process the burgeoning volumes of information being uploaded into the cloud before artificial intelligence draws meaningful conclusions and instigates changes.
Arguably the industry’s highest-profile success story has been smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo range, powered by its Alexa virtual assistant. Capable of controlling linked devices like lightbulbs with instructions sent from anywhere in the world, smart speakers resemble a real-world take on science fiction concepts like JARVIS in the Iron Man comics. It’s been estimated that most IoT connections will be machine-to-machine, such as autonomous vehicles communicating with smart stoplights.
A fully connected future?
A recent Gartner report suggested there will be over 20 billion internet of things devices by next year. Those numbers are expected to increase rapidly in subsequent years, making this an ideal point for service providers and software developers to enter the market. Cisco has estimated that the IoT will generate $14.4 trillion in value, across commercial and industrial environments as well as residential ones. Having started in factories and warehouses, it’ll continue to play a key role in monitoring corporate performance and optimizing productivity. Utility companies could build fully connected supply grids before using big data to optimize working processes, maximizing efficiency and profits.
However, IoT technology could be most beneficial around our homes. It might help older people to live independently for longer by reordering groceries, monitoring sleep patterns, and identifying sudden health concerns. Automated lighting and remote-controlled heating could slash domestic energy usage at a time when electricity generation is causing significant environmental damage.
Security has already been improved by intelligent CCTV systems and video-link doorbells. Ironically, though, the security of connected devices themselves also needs to be improved. Unencrypted data sent across a weakly-protected wifi network provides a clear opportunity for tech-savvy criminals, and bolstering defenses against hackers will be pivotal to ensuring a positive future for the internet of things.