Welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT)
A comprehensive overview of the Internet of Things
What is IoT?
“The Internet of Things (IoT) is the billions of physical devices around the world that are now connected to the internet, all collecting and sharing data.”¹
— IBM, Internet of Things on IBM Cloud
While the precise definition depends on who you ask, the Internet of Things is essentially the network of devices connected to the Internet which are designed to do more than mere information processing; such “smart” devices are imbedded with sensors and microcontrollers so they can relay information about their condition and environment to other devices. They may also react to information received from other devices on the network. Essentially, the IoT is about machines communicating about their environment in order to achieve more than they could on their own.
The concept of telemetry, that is communicating data from autonomous measurement devices over long distances, can be traced back to 1874, when snow-depth sensors on Mont Blanc were installed to transmit real-time information to Paris. In the 1980’s, CS students at Carnegie Mellon University retrofit a Coke vending machine to send its stock information over ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. The term “Internet of Things” was coined at least two independent times: first, in 1985 by Peter T. Lewis, and again in 1999 by Kevin Ashton. Cisco defines the birth of the IoT as the point in time when there were more objects connected to the Internet than people, which it places somewhere between 2008–2009. At the time of writing, there are close to 36 billion connected IoT devices.²
Applications of the IoT
IoT at Home
The IoT finds applications in both the home and work environments. At home, IoT falls into two categories: smart devices, and smart systems.³ Smart systems function as central controllers for integrating smart devices. Some examples include Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Samsung SmartThings. Smart devices, on the other hand, are the boots on the ground. They collect data and execute real-world tasks. There is a long and growing list of smart devices on the market at the time of writing including but not limited to:
- Vacuum cleaners
- Power outlets, switches and lighting
- Irrigation controllers
- Thermostats and ventilation controllers
- Window, door, and drapery opener systems
- Entertainment: TVs, loudspeakers, gaming consoles
- Appliances: refrigerators, microwaves, dishwashers, oven ranges
- Security: Locks, doorbells, alarms and security cameras
- Even toilets!
For the DIYers out there, you can get started building your own IoT devices using a Raspberry Pi, Arduino kit or both. There are endless possibilities for custom IoT projects, and loads of project tutorials available for an easy way to get started.
IoT at work
The IoT poses many opportunities for businesses in virtually every industry to increase efficiency. Smart mechanical parts could report usage data and provide maintenance data to manufacturers so they can fix or replace them at the optimum time. Logistic operations could benefit from smart shipping containers which could convey data such as temperature and location. In healthcare, wearable smart devices can monitor and respond to physiological signals, or smart medical tools can inform hospitals of inventory or reveal patterns in aggregate patient data leading to lower costs and faster, more accurate diagnoses. I’ve even used a telematics device myself which communicated my driving pattern to my insurance company, helping them construct more accurate driver risk analysis in exchange for a lower rate.
In short, smart industrial devices provide real-time data, analytics, predictive maintenance and remote access which increases safety, reliability and efficiency.
The amount of available industrial smart devices is greater than that of homes, but common categories include lighting, metering, location tracking, and safety devices. There are even smart trash monitors which can detect when a compacter is full and schedule a pickup automatically.
Privacy & Security Concerns
With increasing ubiquity of network-connected devices comes increasing risk of abuse of devices and information. Reports of internet-connected baby monitors being hacked expose how using devices which are designed to provide comfort and convenience can transform into a terrifying and sickening experience when used inappropriately.
Cybercrime was bad enough when information alone was on the line, but by integrating the environment, IoT exposes an even greater risk. Cybercriminals could exploit vulnerable smart devices to virtually torture their victims.
On a larger scale, vast amounts of valuable and potentially sensitive data can be obtained on the IoT, making it a prime target for cybercriminals. In 2017, a team of hackers stole valuable data from a casino by accessing its network through a fish tank smart thermometer.
Currently, the most common use for a compromised IoT device is to engulf in into a botnet and commandeer it for DDoS attacks.⁴ This was the case for Mirai, a wormlike malware discovered in 2016, which amalgamated a botnet of nearly half a million IoT devices. Mirai managed to temporarily bring down multiple major websites including Amazon Web Services.⁵ Variants of Mirai are still active at the time of writing.
Mirai was preventable; it incubated due to failure to follow already known good security practices. In fact, most of the major IoT security breaches resulted from the same lack of attention to security. A secure IoT depends upon treating every device as worthy of receiving the same high quality standard of security. After all, security is only as good as its weakest link.
Going forward, it appears not so much that new, stronger encryption methods will need to be developed, but rather that smart device designers need to design with a holistic concept of security. IoT legislation highlights the need for meticulous attention to be paid to every aspect of smart device design.
While known security best practices can mitigate the risk of any system becoming compromised, the IoT will undoubtedly introduce its own security challenges. But, perhaps the IoT itself will introduce solutions. Smart devices have already aided criminal investigations. Smart devices could gather data to fuel AI systems designed to detect and respond to malware and cyber attacks more quickly and effectively than humans alone. Perhaps in the future, platforms will come to pair their own data with AI/ML to learn to identify and combat security threats, like a digital immune system.
“It is important to note that while barriers and challenges exist, they are not insurmountable. Given the benefits of IoT, these issues will get worked out. It is only a matter of time.”⁶
— Dave Adams, Cicsco, The Internet of Things IBSG 2011
Ultimately, new technologies always introduce risk. IoT users and developers will do well to educate themselves on safe usage practices, and the risks involved in ignoring them.
Future of the IoT
It is certain that IoT will continue to become an essential part of society. Martech Advisor predicts over 130 billion IoT devices will be connected by 2030.⁷ A few trends are emerging which will dictate the direction in which the IoT develops.
IoT devices are hardly useful without an IoT platform on which to host data analysis tools. Allied technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, edge computing and cloud computing will all serve to augment the utility of smart devices.
Cloud computing is currently the standard topology for IoT connectivity. Rather than a company maintaining its own servers, it can request computing resources on-demand from a cloud service. This relationship provides flexibility, scalability, accessibility and cost efficiency.
Edge computing (aka fog computing), the antithesis to edge computing, is a network topology where data processing is done on or near data collection devices, as opposed to on a centralized location such as a Cloud. Depending on the application, a system may benefit from cloud analytics, or from edge computing. The benefits of edge computing are lower latency, and potentially higher security, as data does not have to travel far to be utilized. The current drawback is the cost, as computers generally need more resources to do analysis than to do data collection. As edge devices become more powerful, edge computing could be the future of IoT.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence are other technologies synergistic with IoT. These tools require lots of data to train. The IoT perfectly complements the needs of ML & AI. Companies like Darktrace are developing ML models which adaptively detect and defend against cyber-threats without interfering with business operations. Others are using ML to identify spam and phishing attacks. The IoT presents lots of opportunities for ML & AI.
Data Before Solutions
“In the future of IoT, we may be able to learn from things like wind turbines, scissor lifts or blood analyzers before we even know what we’re looking for or trying to accomplish.”⁸
— Cindy Turner, SAS, The future of IoT: On the edge
With the Internet of Things constantly accumulating data, AI tools can scan that data for patterns and discover useful insights even without having a specific problem to solve. The IoT can progress our knowledge of the world faster than and in ways we may have overlooked without it.
Internet of Everything
As devices become more powerful, portable, available, and connected, and as the value of the IoT continues to rise, virtually everything we know will become connected. The idea of a universal network of information is known as the Internet of Everything. It is an extension of the Internet of Things and offers greater possibilities as well as greater challenges.
The Internet of Things presents a world of possibilities the likes of which the world has never seen. It paves the way for both unprecedented advancements in knowledge, and unforeseen risks and challenges. Whatever happens, IoT will impact the whole world, and it is our collective responsibility to use it responsibly.
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