The Internet of Everything
by Robin Hegg
Imagine waking up in the morning. Before your alarm even rings, the heat has come on, the hot water is ready, your coffee maker has begun to brew, and your blinds have begun to open. You go downstairs and take a box of cereal from the pantry and a carton of milk from the refrigerator, both of which you use up. You get a notification on your phone letting you know that cereal and milk have been added to your grocery list. When it’s time to head to school or work, you climb into your car. On your dashboard’s build-in navigation system, the directions to your destination are already displayed and waiting for you. You buckle your seatbelt and turn on the car, which then it begins to drive you where you need to go, adjusting its route according to new traffic reports and communicating with other vehicles to get you there safely and efficiently. While you’re away from home, your house adjusts itself to be more energy efficient, letting the water cool and the temperature drop until it begins to prepare for your arrival home at the end of the day. Blinds open according to the available sunlight to allow as much of the sun’s heat to warm the house as possible. Should anything break or need attention while you’re away, you’ll receive an alert on your smart phone to let you know. At the end of the day, your house will be ready for your arrival, begin to dim the lights before you head off to bed, and move into nighttime mode.
This is what the future of the Internet of Things might look like, and it could be a reality sooner than you think. The Internet of Things is a term used to describe the network of devices (such as kitchen appliances, water heaters, refrigerators, thermostats, and even cars and buildings) connected to one another over the Internet and able to collect and exchange data. Experts estimate that between 20 and 30 billion devices will be connected to the Internet of Things by 2020, and they will impact all areas of life, leading to greater automation, efficiency, and convenience, while also presenting a whole new set of challenges and questions.
The Internet of Things could soon affect all areas of our lives, from running our homes more efficiently to monitoring our health and safety. In addition to connecting household devices and making it possible to control them remotely, the IoT opens up incredible opportunities for making energy usage more efficient. Devices will be programmable, remotely controllable, and could be programmed to anticipate their usage, turning themselves off when unnecessary. Electronic devices will also be able to communicate with the utility company, giving utility companies the information needed to better balance power being generated and energy being used.
IoT technology in smart cars and other forms of smart transportation would affect not just the vehicle, but the infrastructure, and the driver or user as well. Vehicles would communicate with one another, traffic could be controlled using real-time data to control traffic lights and reflow traffic, and free parking spaces could be detected and broadcast as needed.
In the medical field, a patient’s health could be monitored remotely with automatic emergency notification systems in place. Blood pressure and heart rate monitors, hearing aids, and even pacemakers could soon be connected to the Internet.
The Internet of Things could even be used to monitor the health of our environment and infrastructure. Air and water quality, soil conditions, and wildlife movement could all be remotely monitored. Infrastructure such as bridges and railway tracks could also be monitored and controlled remotely using IoT technology. Sensors could alert people to any events or changes that might render the structures unsafe and allow more accurate and efficient scheduling of repairs and maintenance.
Alongside the many incredible things the IoT promises to do come many concerns and questions, including some practical challenges. The Internet of Things will generate a tremendous amount of data from an enormous number of locations. This means it will be necessary to transmit, index, store, and process this data quickly and effectively. While the idea of the IoT is based on Radio Identification (RID) technology, which uses radio tags to identify objects, the IoT will use an unique Internet Protocol (IP) address for each object. Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), which allows for 4.3 billion unique addresses, doesn’t have room for the influx of networked objects the IoT will bring. The Internet of Things will require use of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), which has enough room for the huge number of unique addresses needed. This means, however, that global adoption of IPv6 in the coming years will be a critical component of the successful development of the IoT.
Another problem with the developing IoT is that with so many different manufacturers and engineers working on quickly developing technology, the resulting devices and operating systems may not be compatible with one another. This means devices made by different manufacturers may not be able to communicate with one another, rendering them potentially useless. To try to solve this problem, technology leaders are joining together to create standards for how devices will communicate with one another. The AllJoyn alliance is composed of 20 world technology leaders working to develop standards and protocols for device communication. Other big companies, however, are still promoting their own protocols.
While the IoT offers an amazing opportunity to increase energy efficiency and monitor the environment, the quick development of new semiconductor-rich devices also poses a large environmental challenge. These devices often contain heavy metals and rare-earth metals that are very damaging to mine. They are difficult to recycle properly and these rare-earth metals are infrequently recovered for reuse. Since the IoT also involves adding electronics to otherwise commonplace devices (like light switches and outlets), objects that might have lasted 50 years may now need to be replaced after 5, leading to a massive increase in waste.
One of the major concerns regarding the IoT is cybersecurity. The technology is developing very quickly and concern for the fairly major security challenges is often not a priority of technology companies. Because the IoT involves so many devices involved in our everyday, offline lives, cyber attacks could also become more of a physical than virtual threat. Hackers could use technology to spy on people through computers and televisions and have already shown that they were able to access smart cars’ locks, brakes, engines, and hood and trunk releases. Medical equipment like pacemakers and insulin pumps could even become at risk for cyber attacks. In September of 2015, the Internet of Things Security Foundation (IoTSF) was founded to address these concerns. The foundation’s mission is to secure the Internet of Things by promoting knowledge and best practices.
The IoT also raises a lot of privacy concerns. There are already devices that can spy on their owners—internet-connected televisions with cameras and microphones, toys that communicate with children and record and transmit audio. The Internet of Things involves collecting massive amounts of personal data about users and their habits. Deciding how this data is collected, stored, and used is one of the big challenges in successfully developing the IoT. A report published in IEEE IT Professional Magazine titled “Privacy of Big Data in the Internet of Things Era” highlighted three main recommendations regarding major privacy concerns. First, that users need to be able to give informed consent to having their data collected. Users, however, have limited time and technical knowledge, and consent is often necessary in order for the device to work at all. The second recommendation was that both privacy protections and underlying standards should promote freedom of choice. The third recommendation was that user anonymity be prioritized as much as possible. Currently, IoT platforms transmit data without much attention to user anonymity. In the future, platforms could make data anonymous so users can’t be profiled too heavily.
The Internet of Things is quickly developing and promises to impact nearly every aspect of our lives. This new technology could lead to greater energy efficiency, convenience, automation, information, and safety. Such a pervasive new technology raises new concerns and questions, particularly surrounding cyber security and privacy. The development of technical standards, cooperation by technology companies, and a deeper focus on security and privacy concerns will be central to making the development of the Internet of Things a successful one.