Why the Internet of Things will change all of our lives
4th Dec 2013 | 12:01
An Orwellian nightmare or a Utopian future?
The chances are you've already heard someone mention the Internet of Things, and it's certainly a phrase that you are going to hear more and more in the coming years, so what exactly is it?
At its most basic, the Internet of Things is the, frankly horrible, term used to describe the millions of devices that are now connected together and to the internet but that do not require humans to tell them what data to share.
Everything from fitness bands to internet connected fridges, smart thermostats to microchipped street lights can all feed data back to the net with or without our behest, and that's potentially a hugely powerful shift in the way that we live our lives.
With the simple addition of an RFID chip right up to much more complicated processors, objects and devices in our everyday lives can now be spilling out data online without any need for us to choose what to upload. Obviously that brings implications - both good and bad - but it's an immensely powerful technology.
If both our devices and us can access huge amounts of information we can begin to take some very powerful actions.
Let's start with a really simple example: street lighting. At its most basic having a processor chip and a connection would make it really easy to see when there's a problem like a blown bulb, but when you have this data you can also allow computers to make a series of logical connections that save you time.
For instance, a computer could see how many bulbs have blown across the entire network and make sensible decisions, based on empirical data, about how many new bulbs must be ordered.
It could predict the average time a bulb will last and potentially alert of future problems, it could spot anomalies that suggest vandalism or less predictable problems. It could be made to smartly switch on and off when there's nobody there and nobody about to arrive.
Mike Muller, the CTO of ARM, the chip company that is investing millions in staying ahead of the curve with small, cheap and efficient processors and sensors that are at the heart of this next wave, suggests another example.
"If you look at something like putting a wireless microcontroller in every parking space then you can see if there's a car in the space. When you attach that to a mesh network all that information is pushed up to the web... as a punter you can check an app and it tells you where you can park."
"For the consumer it's handy, but one of the bigger reasons for doing it is the business objective of saying: 'I now know these car parks are busy and when so I can do dynamic pricing'. You can use it as a business tool. That's an IOT application."
On a smaller level, there are potentially thousands of applications within our homes that could become powerfully effective.
Vint Cerf - now Chief Internet Evangelist at Google but best known as one of the founding fathers of the internet - explains how his house takes advantage of connected objects and devices.
"I happen to have this sensory network running at home - these little sensors run on two AA cells and they last for about a year - each one is about the size of a mobile and its monitoring temperature, humidity and light levels in the house every five minutes and that information is transmitted to a server down in the basement.
"Now these little sensors are also network nodes - and they are forming a mesh network on their own and they change their connectivity depending on what the network linkages look like so the information is sent through the network to the target.
"At the end of the year I have an accumulation of real data about how well the heating, ventilation and air conditioning has worked - this is proper engineering data and it means I can figure out how to adjust the systems."
Cerf isn't stopping there, and he has applied this logical gathering of data to one of his passions - his wine cellar.
"It occurred to me that in the case of the wine cellar that this is a very important room in the house because there are a couple of thousand bottles of wine in there. I need to keep it below 60 degrees fahrenheit so if the temperature goes up over that because the system fails I get an SMS on my mobile.
"I thought about this and realised that, seeing as I can also tell if the lights have gone off and on, I might be able to figure out if someone has gone into the wine cellar while I was away.
"So my next project is to put RFID chips on each bottle and then have a sensor so I can take inventory instantaneously to see if any bottles have left the cellar without my permission.
"I was proudly explaining this to one of my engineering friends and he said, 'There's a bug,' so I said, 'What do you mean there's a bug?' and he replied: 'Well you could go in and drink the wine and leave the bottle'.
"That means I now have to put sensors in the cork and if you are going to do that you may as well sample the esters - which is what makes the wine taste the way it does.
"So before you open the bottle you would interrogate the cork and if that's the bottle that got up to 75 degrees, that's the bottle you give to someone who doesn't know the difference."
Big data, big concerns
That's all very well, but all this information being uploaded in huge amounts that would be difficult for humans to process efficiently (generally referred to as 'Big Data') is still information, and logical assumptions being made can swing both ways and be used both to help us, help monetise us for companies and, potentially, to harm us as well.
"Everyone talks about big data but I'm into little data," says ARM's Muller . "Our job is to make the little data available - if that data is "my space in this carpark is empty" someone else can turn that into a big data app of pricing models etc.
"We do little data and the question 'is who owns the little data?'. Take my Wi-Fi enabled weighing scales - it's my data - it uploads to my account and a family account, I'd share it with my gym so my personal trainer can nag me but I don't want the gym to sell that to my life insurance company.
"If you take something like the GPS insurance boxes for cars that you can get to keep your insurance down, it's their box, their data and they can do what the like with that. Imagine if they contact your life insurer and tell them 'Mr X is probably going to die because he drives dangerously'."
Even something as simple as Cerf's heating data could be used in a variety of ways (good and bad) if it was public; showing when he is not at home for instance for any eagle-eyed burglars, or if you were a wine vendor you could time a brochure for the exact time his cellar supply was lagging and if the temperatures were fluctuating then it could alert a plumber.
The true genius of the Internet of Things is actually the power of being able to process and make conclusions from huge amounts of empirical data, and that is something that we are increasingly in a position to do quickly and efficiently and, often, without the need for any human input.
Cerf himself recognises the potential problems with a truly connected world, telling an anecdote about that most famous trope of connected home devices, the humble fridge.
"I've often wondered what else you could do with an internet enabled refrigerator and I thought, you know, if you had a little RFID chip on everything you had in the refrigerator it would know everything that it had inside," he says.
"When you are off at work it can be surfing for recipes for the stuff it knows it has inside so when you come back you see a nice list of recipes that you could do for dinner.
"You could extrapolate this: you can imagine maybe you are on holiday and you get an email - it's from your refrigerator and it says 'that milk you put in me three weeks ago - it's about to crawl out on its own now' or maybe you're shopping and you get a text message saying don't forget the marinara sauce then I'll have everything I need for spaghetti dinner tonight.
"I have to tell you that our Japanese friends have really destroyed this idyllic vision. They've developed a set of internet-enabled scales so when you get on it figures out what family member you are and then uploads that information to the web and to the medical record with your doctor.
"That seems perfectly okay but the problem is that the refrigerator is on the same network so when you get home you see diet recipes coming up or maybe it just refuses to open. So it's a terrible idea."
Indeed, many believe we shouldn't be rushing to put chips and tags on all of our possessions. Nest, a company that makes smart devices such as thermostats and smoke alarms is run by ex-iPod chief Tony Fadell - and he was adamant that some data is just not worth gathering (yet).
"Just because you can connect something doesn't mean that you should," he insists.
"Connection is another technology that can dramatically change a product and an experience but people are just connecting anything.
"People are like, I am going to bash Wi-Fi with a toaster, or with a kettle. The other day I saw that someone was doing it with a water bottle. It doesn't make sense.
"You have to think about the entire experience of the product. Once you rethink the entire product, then connectivity is right.
"There are some products that can be rethought with connectivity. We are showing this at Nest but not everything needs to have the full smartphone experience."
Things done changed
It's clear that keeping a firm grip on data is of paramount importance to both business and individuals. Data is neither good nor bad, but it can be used for both and the Internet of Things is a mechanism that is uniquely placed to provide the next wave of information.
The utopian view of a huge AI benignly making our environment safer, more productive and more interesting has the Internet of Things at its heart, but so does the more dystopian Orwellian nightmare scenario where our every move is monitored.
The likely truth is that the future lies somewhere between the two, but it's okay to be both wary of the repercussions and thrilled by the potential as we make our way inexorably down the path to a truly connected world.
- Meanwhile on the normal internet, Google is swiftly taking over absolutely everything.