What on earth is the Internet of Things?

And will it be a good thing?
There’s always another IT development lurking around the corner and there’s been talk recently of “the Internet of Things” being the next step in our increasingly high tech world. It’s even been called `The Fourth Industrial Revolution`. So what on earth is it? Well it’s described as “a proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data.” Which means that you would potentially be able to have your kettle start boiling water while you’re still walking up the road to your home or you could press a few buttons to start your washing machine even if you were hundreds of miles away. Of course you would still have to have put the water in the kettle or the washing in the machine for this to work! IOT is much more than just that though..

It all sounds great in principle though reassuringly it does rely on old fashioned things like preparation and forethought. We’re used to social media so the idea of being away from home yet still being able to `talk` to your electrical devices is only another step. Perhaps your washing machine can become a Facebook friend?! The way it works is that machines, devices, objects and even- yes- animals are provided with what are called `unique identifiers` and the ability to transfer data over a network. According to scientists the potential is enormous to be able to function remotely, monitor and analyse data and issue warnings or information. It could be a heart monitor, it could be a sensor in a car or a biochip for use in farming animals.
This new branch of technology has evolved from a combination of wireless technology, micro electromechanical systems and the Internet itself. Ok I looked that up but even if you don’t know or understand the technical details, the concept itself is easy to understand and find endless uses for. For example there is a US company called Enlightened which sells an IOT idea to measure what happens in a workplace each day; not just the work but things like people coming and going, having meetings, even drinking coffee. Their solution is to put sensors in the lights. This does sound a heartbeat away from a 1984 Big Brother scenario whatever soothing words the company’s CEO Joe Costello offers by way of explanation; "It’s really about helping people understand exactly how their space is being utilised” he says “ We can literally tell you how every square foot is occupied every second of every day," The idea is to help provide savings for businesses and Enlightened does point out that these are sensors rather than cameras and cannot `see` people or even identify individuals. Then again it’s easy to see how that aspect could be developed.
Surprisingly the first public mention of IOT seems to date back as far as the late Nineties though research was ongoing prior to that. In a speech in 1999 Kevin Ashton, a director of the US Auto-ID Center, outlined the idea that computer technology relied entirely on human beings inputting information in some way or other. He highlighted the inherent flaws in this- limited time, accuracy, attention span and argued that if computers could gather information on their own everything could be tracked, counted and recorded offering potential savings.  He said: "If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things - using data they gathered without any help from us - we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best".
Some 17 years later this now seems to be plausible because it would now be possible to assign everything an IP address to uniquely identify it online. Of course this is a worrying prospect for many concerned about issues of privacy and information security.  However there is already IOT technology at use in industries such as building management, transportation, energy and agriculture.

Data has been called “the oil of the 21st century” and one of the big issues that researchers have to deal with is the sheer volume of information that streams in from IOT.  In 2011 technology author Anthony D Williams wrote: "Virtually every animate and inanimate object on Earth could be generating and transmitting data, including our homes, our cars, our natural and man-made environments, and yes, even our bodies." To make some sense of it they use algorithms which can read data trends that in turn lead to conclusions. This itself is predicted to create a whole new market where algorithms will be bought and sold like any commodity and it could also lead to a whole new tranche of technology start- up companies. Just the same as the way apps have changed our interaction with devices and machines, the so called `algorithm economy` will power a similar revolution between machines themselves. We are then a short leap away from many a sci-fi story.
All of this would mean yet another fundamental step change in the way we view and live our lives. For years now some high tech companies have somewhat too gleefully declared “privacy is over” now that we live a portion of our lives online whether interacting via social media, online shopping or banking etc. The IOT tech can potentially produce far more nuanced data about what you are doing online and even beyond. Just think- every online movement you make leaves a trail now. In the IOT environment that trail would come not just from your phone, laptop, tv or tablet but every device in your house and your car; anything that can be connected to the Internet which sounds like pretty much anything.
Of course the one issue that boffins don’t like to face because it is one of those inconvenient truths is that the IOT world is predicted by some economists to accelerate the already increasing trend for jobs done by people to be replaced by robots or machine. A 2013 study concluded that 47% of US workers were in the high risk category of having their jobs being able to be done by machines and the list of occupations was not all as obvious as you may think and included such diverse careers as dentists, cooks and estate agents. Even waiting on staff in restaurants were included and if you think that sounds unlikely then consider that some North American chains have already started using tablets at their tables on which you order and pay for your food. The only human interaction you’d have would be someone actually bringing the food but how long before it arrives on a remote controlled tray- vehicle thingy? (That’s not a Thing btw I just made it up but you know what I mean.)
Despite such doom laden predictions it doesn’t necessarily mean mass unemployment if the issue is included in the whole IOT strategy. After all there are plenty of jobs people used to do that are no longer needed but still plenty of jobs to be done. If this aspect is ignored though enthusiastic adopters may just be hastening their own redundancy and without people having jobs there is less tax and less spending. If scientists only looked at this issue from a self centred point of view then it would mean less money for their research too! Too often amidst our amazement at these developments we tend to overlook the side effects.
Whatever we think the Internet of Things is gradually becoming real and it’s reckoned by 2020 over 26 billion things – cars, coffee machines, even cows – will be connected to the Internet. And they’ll all be talking to each other…

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