The Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to the billions of physical devices around the world that are now connected to the internet, collecting and sharing data. Thanks to cheap processors and wireless networks, it’s possible to turn anything, from a pill to an aeroplane to a self-driving car into part of the IoT.
This adds a level of digital intelligence to devices that would be otherwise dumb, enabling them to communicate real-time data without a human being involved, effectively merging the digital and physical worlds.
Pretty much any physical object can be transformed into an IoT device if it can be connected to the internet and controlled that way.
A lightbulb that can be switched on using a smartphone app is an IoT device, as is a motion sensor or a smart thermostat in your office or a connected streetlight. An IoT device could be as fluffy as a child’s toy or as serious as a driverless truck, or as complicated as a jet engine that’s now filled with thousands of sensors collecting and transmitting data back to make sure it is operating efficiently. At an even bigger scale, smart cities projects are filling entire regions with sensors to help us understand and control the environment.
The term IoT is mainly used for devices that wouldn’t usually generally have an internet connection, and that communicate with a network independently of human action. For this reason, a PC isn’t generally considered an IoT device and neither is a smartphone — even though the latter is crammed with sensors. A smartwatch or a fitness band or other wearable device might be counted as an IoT device, however.
The idea of adding sensor and intelligence to basic objects was discussed throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and there are arguably some much earlier ancestors), but apart from some early projects — including an internet-connected vending machine — progress was slow simply because the technology wasn’t ready.
Processors that were cheap and power-frugal enough to be all but disposable were required before it became cost-effective to connect billions of devices. The adoption of RFID tags — low-power chips that can communicate wirelessly — solved some of this issue, along with the increasing availability of broadband internet and cellular and wireless networking. The adoption of IPv6 — which, among other things, should provide enough IP addresses for every device the world (or indeed this galaxy) is ever likely to need — was also a necessary step for the IoT to scale. Kevin Ashton coined the phrase ‘Internet of Things’ in 1999, although it took at least another decade for the technology to catch up with the vision.
“The IoT integrates the interconnectedness of human culture — our ‘things’ — with the interconnectedness of our digital information system — ‘the internet.’ That’s the IoT,” Ashton said.
Adding RFID tags to expensive pieces of equipment to help track their location was one of the first IoT applications. But since then, the cost of adding sensors and an internet connection to objects has continued to fall, and experts predict that this basic functionality could one day cost as little as 10 cents, making it possible to connect nearly everything to the internet.
The IoT was initially most interesting to business and manufacturing, where its application is sometimes known as machine-to-machine (M2M), but the emphasis is now on filling our homes and offices with smart devices, transforming it into something that’s relevant to almost everyone. Early suggestions for internet-connected devices included ‘blogjects’ (objects that blog and record data about themselves to the internet), ubiquitous computing (or ‘ubicomp’), invisible computing, and pervasive computing. However, it was Internet of Things and IoT that stuck.
Big and getting bigger — there are already more connected things than people in the world. Analyst Gartner calculates that around 8.4 billion IoT devices were in use in 2017, up 31 percent from 2016, and this will likely reach 20.4 billion by 2020. Total spending on IoT endpoints and services will reach almost $2tn in 2017, with two-thirds of those devices found in China, North America and Western Europe.
Another analyst, IDC, puts worldwide spending on IoT at $772.5bn in 2018 — up nearly 15 percent on the $674bn that will be spent in 2017. IDC predicts that total spending will hit $1tn in 2020 and $1.1tn in 2021.
According to IDC, hardware will be the largest technology category in 2018 with $239bn going on modules and sensors, with some spending on infrastructure and security. Services will be the second largest technology category, followed by software and connectivity.
The benefits of the IoT for business depend on the particular implementation, but the key is that enterprises should have access to more data about their own products and their own internal systems, and a greater ability to make changes as a result.
Manufacturers are adding sensors to the components of their products so that they can transmit back data about how they are performing. This can help companies spot when a component is likely to fail and to swap it out before it causes damage. Companies can also use the data generated by these sensors to make their systems and their supply chains more efficient, because they will have much more accurate data about what’s really going on.
Enterprise use of the IoT can be divided into two segments: industry-specific offerings like sensors in a generating plant or real-time location devices for healthcare; and IoT devices that can be used in all industries, like smart air conditioning or security systems.
While industry-specific products will make the early running, by 2020 Gartner predicts that cross-industry devices will reach 4.4 billion units, while vertical-specific devices will amount to 3.2 billion units. Consumers purchase more devices, but businesses spend more: the analyst group said that while consumer spending on IoT devices was around $725bn last year, businesses spending on IoT hit $964bn. By 2020, business and consumer spending on IoT hardware will hit nearly $3tn.
With all those sensors collecting data on everything you do, the IoT is a potentially vast privacy headache. Take the smart home: it can tell when you wake up (when the smart coffee machine is activated) and how well you brush your teeth (thanks to your smart toothbrush), what radio station you listen to (thanks to your smart speaker), what type of food you eat (thanks to your smart oven or fridge), what your children think (thanks to their smart toys), and who visits you and passes by your house (thanks to your smart doorbell). While companies will make money from selling you the smart object in the first place, their IoT business model probably involves data, too.
What happens to that data is a vitally important privacy matter. Not all smart home companies build their business model around harvesting and selling your data, but some do.
And it’s worth remembering that IoT data can be combined with other bits of data to create a surprisingly detailed picture of you. It’s surprisingly easy to find out a lot about a person from a few different sensor readings. In one project, a researcher found that by analysing data charting just the home’s energy consumption, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels, temperature, and humidity throughout the day they could work out what someone was having for dinner.
The IoT generates vast amounts of data: from sensors attached to machine parts or environment sensors, or the words we shout at our smart speakers. That means the IoT is a significant driver of big data analytics projects because it allows companies to create vast data sets and analyse them.
In particular, the IoT will deliver large amounts of real-time data. Cisco calculates that machine-to machine connections that support IoT applications will account for more than half of the total 27.1 billion devices and connections, and will account for five percent of global IP traffic by 2021.
The huge amount of data that IoT applications generate means that many companies will choose to do their data processing in the cloud rather than build huge amounts of in-house capacity. Cloud computing giants are already courting these companies: Microsoft has its Azure IoT suite, while Amazon Web Services provides a range of IoT services, as does Google Cloud.
IoT devices use a variety of methods to connect and share data, although most will use some form of wireless connectivity: homes and offices will use standard wi-fi or Bluetooth Low Energy (or even Ethernet if they aren’t especially mobile); other devices will use LTE or even satellite connections to communicate. However, the vast number of different options has already led some to argue that IoT communications standards need to be as accepted and interoperable as Wi-Fi is today.
One likely trend is that, as the IoT develops, it could be that less data will be sent for processing in the cloud. To keep costs down, more processing could be done on-device with only the useful data sent back to the cloud — a strategy known as ‘edge computing’. This will require new technology – like tamper-proof edge servers that can collect and analyse data far from the cloud or corporate data center.
IoT devices generate vast amounts of data; that might be information about an engine’s temperature or whether a door is open or closed or the reading from a smart meter. All this IoT data has to be collected, stored and analysed. One way companies are making the most of this data is to feed it into artificial intelligence (AI) systems which will take that IoT data and use it to make predictions.
For example, Google is an AI in charge of its data center cooling system. The AI uses data pulled from thousands of IoT sensors which is fed into deep neural networks, which predict how different choices will affect future energy consumption. By using machine learning and AI Google has been able to make its data centers more efficient and said the same technology could have uses in other industrial settings.
As the price of sensors and communications continue to drop, it becomes cost-effective to add more devices to the IoT — even if in some cases there’s little obvious benefit to consumers. Deployments are at an early stage; most companies which are engaging with the IoT are at the trial stage right now, largely because the necessary technology – sensor technology, 5G and machine-learning powered analytics- are still themselves at an early stage of development. There are many competing platforms and standards and many different vendors from device makers to software companies to network operators want a slice of the pie. It’s still not clear which of those will win out. But without standards and with security an ongoing issue we are likely to see some more big IoT security mishaps in the next few years.
As the number of connected devices continues to rise, our living and working environments will become filled with smart products — assuming we are willing to accept the security and privacy trade-offs. Some will welcome the new era of smart things. Others will pine for the days when a chair was simply a chair.