As one of the latest buzzwords of things technical permeates our collective consciousness to a greater degree, it’s useful to better understand this technology by observing and discussing the various facets of IoT. Like many nascent technologies, IoT has been around for some time (depending on who you ask, and what your definition is, the term IoT showed up around 1999) but the real explosion of both the technology and large-scale awareness was over the last five years. Like the term ‘cloud’ – the meaning is often diffuse and inexact: one must define the use and application to better understand how this technology can provide value.
As the technology of IoT is maturing and beginning to be rolled out in larger and larger scale deployments, the impact of IoT will be felt by all of us, whether or not we directly think we are ‘using’ IoT. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of IoT across different aspects will be critical to understanding the effects and usefulness (or potential threats) posed by this technology. In this short series of posts, I’ll be examining IoT features across the following areas: 1) basic definition & scope; 2) the Trinity of functional IoT: sensors/actuators/infrastructure; 3) security & privacy; 4) the consumer pov [bottom up view]; 5) the business pov [top down]; 6) the disruption that IoT will cause in both personal & business process; and 7) what an IoT-enabled world will look like (realistically) in 2021 (5 years on).
The term “Internet of Things” can potentially encompass a vast array of objects and technologies. Essentially this means a collection of non-human entities that are connected to one or more networks and communicate to other non-human entities. This is to differentiate IoT from the ‘normal’ Internet where humans connect to either each other or information repositories (aka Google) to send or receive information, make purchases, perform tasks, etc. The range of activities and objects that can be encompassed by “IoT” is huge, and some may argue that certain activities fall outside their definition of IoT. This has been a common issue with the term “cloud” – and I don’t see this confusion going away anytime soon. One must clarify how the term applies in a given discussion or risk uncertainty of understanding.
Probably the biggest distinction of where the ‘edge’ of the IoT universe is, in relation to other information network activities, is one of scope, scale and functionality. Even then the definition is not absolute. I’ll give a few examples:
A small sensor that measures temperature and humidity that is capable of connecting to the Internet and transmitting that data is a classical example of an IoT device. It is usually physically small, relatively simple in both design and function, and can potentially exist in a large scale.
An Internet router – a large switch that directs traffic over the Internet – but also communicates with other such switches and uploads data for later analysis is usually not thought of as part of the IoT universe, even though it is not human, and does connect to other non-human entities over a network. These devices are usually (and I would argue correctly) defined as part of the overall infrastructure that supports IoT, but not an IoT device itself. However… IoT can’t exist without them, so they can’t be ignored, even in a discussion of IoT.
Now let’s take the example of a current high-end vehicle. At a more macro level, the entire car can be seen as an IoT device, communicating to other vehicles, mapping algorithms, security applications, traffic monitoring applications, maintenance and support applications, etc. At a localized micro level, the ‘vehicle’ is an entire hub with its own internal network, with many IoT devices embedded within the vehicle itself (GPS sensor, speed sensor, temperature, tire pressure, accelerometers, oil pressure, voice communications, data display, ambient light sensors, fuel delivery sensors, etc etc etc.) So it’s partially a point of view…
The other thing to keep in mind is that often we tend to think of IoT devices as “Input Devices”, or sensors. Equally at home in the IoT universe however are “Output Devices”, or actuators. They can be very simple, such as a light switch (that is actuated by either a local sensor of ambient light, or a remote command from a mobile device, etc.) Actuators can be somewhat more complicated, such as the set of solenoids, motor controls, etc. that comprise an IoT-connected washing machine (which among other activities may use a weight sensor to determine the actual amount of soiled clothes in order to use exactly the amount of water and detergent that is appropriate; predict the amount of electricity that will be used for a wash cycle, measure incoming water pressure and temperature and accommodate that in its process, etc.) At a macro level, an autonomous vehicle could be thought of as both an ‘actuator’ and a ‘sensor’ within a large network of traffic – again the point of view often determines the definition.
The potential range and pervasiveness of IoT devices is almost beyond imagination. Depending on your news source, the amount of estimated IoT devices that will be actively deployed by 2020 will range between 25 and 50 billion devices. What happens by 2030 – only 14 years from now? Given that most pundits were horribly wrong back in 1995 about how many cellphones would be actively deployed by 2010 (same ~15 yr predictive window) – most observing that maybe 1 million cellphones would be active by that time, whereas the actual number turned out to be almost a billion; it’s not unlikely that a trillion IoT devices will be deployed by 2030. That’s a very large number… and has some serious implications that will be discussed in later articles on this topic. For instance, just how do you update a trillion devices? The very fabric of connectivity will change in the face of this amount of devices that all want to talk to something.
The number of cellphones is already set to exceed the population of our planet within a year (there are currently 6.88 billion cellphones, and 7.01 billion humans – as of April 2016). With IoT devices set to outnumber all existing Internet devices by a factor of more than 1,000 an entirely new paradigm will come into existence to support this level of connectivity. Other issues surrounding such a massive scope will need to be addressed: power (even if individual devices use very little power, a trillion of them – at current power consumption levels – will be unsupportable; errors and outdated devices must be accommodated at a truly Herculean scale; the sheer volume of data created will have to be managed differently than today, etc.
The next section of this post “The Trinity of functional IoT: Sensors, Actuators & Infrastructure” may be found here.