Internet of Things: What It Is and Why It’s Not Here Yet
Internet of Things or smart devices are not quite what some people picture them to be, but they sure are buzzwords that are sometimes used very liberally and with only a very loose connection to the actual subject. These days, market specialists and PR experts like to add the word “smart” to the name of devices that are, in fairness, quite stupid. Thus, pretty recently a smart lock refused to let the house owner in because it recognized Batman on his t-shirt as a stranger, and ignored the owner’s own face.
Still, IoT is more than just yet another marketing conspiracy. According to IDC, IoT investment in 2016 comprised $737 billion, over $800 billion in 2017, and is expected to exceed $1.1 trillion by 2021. This gargantuan amount of investment cannot be caused by PR efforts alone, no matter how good they could be, or how much PR experts wish it were a feather in their cap.
It appears, though, that the only thing known about the Internet of Things for certain is where it came from. The concept’s evolution has led the international community to the land where nothing can be said for sure. In this feature, we’ll take a look at the way the IoT concept has made, and, most importantly, the problems it’s facing now.
Brief History of IoT
The origins of IoT can be traced back to 1999, when Kevin Ashton, IT researcher and a brand manager at Procter & Gamble offered the company the concept of advanced logistics based on universal use of RFID chips (radio frequency identification). He is also credited with coining the very term “Internet of things.”
“Linking the new idea of RFID in P&G’s supply chain to the then-red-hot topic of the Internet was more than just a good way to get executive attention,” he recalls.
A very popular color of the company’s lipstick Oil of Olay was almost always out of stock, so Mr. Ashton came up with the idea of installing RFID chips on the inventory to find out the reason for that.
The idea was fairly simple: when the chip is close enough to the detector, the detector activates and then reads or records data into the chip. Back in 1999, the idea of installing such chips into every object seemed very futuristic and advanced as it would enable companies to maintain full control over their logistics. Any movements by chipped items would be automatically recorded and processed. For instance, if a pack of milk in your fridge were equipped with an RFID chip, and the fridge itself had a detector installed, it would have known that the milk is about to expire and warn you that you should use the milk right away, or face the consequences.
However, even though it’s unbearable to admit, it’s been almost 20 years since 1999. Right now, RFID is a really widespread tech that stores in your mall use to make sure nothing is stolen, and you possibly have one of those chips in your bus pass or work permit, or maybe even credit card. Still, nobody considers this technology a part of the Internet of Things, even though it was its very first practical incarnation.
The reason for that is that RFID simply isn’t cheap enough to become widespread enough to be present in any disposable milk pack. In stores, they include the price of RFID chips in the cost of their products, but doing it to every single item in a supermarket would cost a fortune, and applying barcodes on the same packs is incomparably less expensive. As a result, the technology wasn’t altogether scrapped and found its use, but as the first version of the Internet of Things, it definitely failed. Where it really succeeded was bringing the idea of IoT to the forefront of technological advancement.
Just in a few years after Kevin Ashton’s presentation, in 2003, the Moore’s Law worked again. By that year, microchips became as efficient as home computers of early 1990s, and their retail price dropped to just a few dollars, which prompted many developers to start working on their own machines. One of such endeavors was Arduino project, which in many regards has defined today’s iteration of the Internet of Things.
Basically, it was an open-source hardware & software framework designed for amateurs which would allow them to create any device based on a microchip computer without any profound knowledge of IT and engineering. In theory, they could create an automatic lawn watering machine, a sequencer to start making morning coffee, or even an automatized production system for a small factory. This universal applicability, the solution’s utter simplicity, and the wide range of compatible detectors and actuators made Arduino immensely popular back in the day.
This new paradigm completely redefined the very concept of IoT. Instead of installing RFID chips into every single item you may use, Arduino shifted the idea towards making most household items small computers connected via the internet and controlled from a certain master device. Once Apple presented the very first iPhone back in 2007, it became very clear that ultimately this device is likely to be a smartphone.
On the practical side, Arduino allowed people to develop lots of simple devices that made the living a bit easier. Eventually, the conceptual core of those devices formed what we now know as the “smart home.” With a controlling device in your hand, such as a phone, you can turn off the lights, put the kettle on, or start the oven while you’re on your way home from work and wish to start cooking right away.
Even though there are lots of people who tend to see little difference between the internet of things and smart devices, those concepts have parted their ways long ago. The internet of things has outgrown its earlier concepts, especially considering the recent advancements in AI, big data, and neural networks. While those advancements might be arguable to some as they can hardly answer the prayers of sci-fi geeks, trans-humanists, and other valuable members of our society, they have once again added a new layer of meaning to the IoT concept.
Modern studies of ants, bees, and birds have brought about the working concept of hive mind or swarm intelligence, where each individual member of the hive isn’t much of a thinker, but lots of such members brought together suddenly manifest a clearly perceivable intellectual capacity. Technological models based on this “collective wisdom” concept are used today in some countries to optimize road traffic, but their ultimate goal is to merge all IoT items into a single synergetic network whose intellectual potential would exceed that of the sum of its members by the score.
This lead to yet another IoT concept that puts the dream of closing the drapes with a voice command to an unspeakable shame. Now, when the concepts of virtual reality and augmented reality are gaining traction, this again is likely to change what the Internet of Things could become in the future, even though the combination of IoT and VR is essentially The Matrix.
Finally, the hype around cryptocurrencies made developers think about employing blockchain tech in the Internet of Things. This way, in a smart city, your fridge would not just be able go check how much food is left in stock, but also order a new supply of eggs and bacon, and, most importantly, pay for it on your behalf. As long as the owner of such a fridge has money on his or her account, they won’t have to worry about going for groceries, and the food will become literally heaven-sent, provided it would be delivered by drones.
“IoT will converge with AI, fog computing and blockchain. IoT by itself is not truly transformational. It needs to be combined with key technologies such as AI, fog computing and blockchain to make the business impacts it has long promised,” Maciej Kranz, VP Strategic Innovation at Cisco Systems says.
So, what started as an attempt to find out where’s that goddamn lipstick again, has now evolved into a futuristic vision of smart business processes, smart logistics, and, most importantly, smart living. Along the way, the very concept of IoT has undergone several conceptual reboots, and in the light of recent technological advancements in adjacent fields right now it’s impossible to say with 100% certainty what the Internet of Things is, and what it has to be.
IoT: Challenges and Concerns
Security. While it all sounds downright fantastic, there’s always the question of security. A malevolent party, say, a neighbor’s kid who’s really bad at relationships but damn good at computers could find a weak spot in the system, hack into your house, and steal the money from your fridge. And then the kid could grow up, become a proper supervillain and hack into a smart city to wreak havoc and go all-Joker on its citizens.
“The opportunities created by the Internet of Things are now becoming clear. It offers consumers and citizens greater empowerment and control over their lifestyles, from managing energy consumption at home to having peace of mind that a frail relative is going about their normal routine. However, these opportunities also bring risk and it is important that the IoT market now matures in a sensible and productive way, with security embedded at the design stage,” says Julian David, CEO of TechUK.
Prof. Dr. Udo Helmbrecht, Executive Director at ENISA, the European Union’s Cybersecurity Agency, seems to agree with him.
“The deployment of IoT will be key to our smart cities, smart airports, smart health and smart X. It is envisaged that IoT will be deployed everywhere and will have a positive impact on our lives. The deployment of baseline security recommendations into our IoT ecosystem will be critical to the proper function of these devices by mitigating and preventing cyber-attacks,” he says.
So, at its heart, it’s still the same old question of the great responsibility coming with great power.
In their 2017 report, ENISA recommended to take a “holistic” approach towards handling the Internet of Things and security risks it may have. In particular, the agency recommended to:
- Promote harmonization of IoT security initiatives and regulations;
- Raise awareness of the need for IoT cybersecurity;
- Define secure software and hardware development lifecycle guidelines for IoT;
- Achieve consensus on interoperability across the IoT ecosystem;
- Foster economic and administrative incentives for IoT security;
- Establish secure IoT product/service lifecycle management;
- Clarify liability among IoT stakeholders.
With all billions (if not trillions) of investment money, regulatory challenges, security threats, conceptual ambivalence, and the abundance of possible technological options, IoT indeed requires a well-thought and comprehensive approach in order to properly develop.
Privacy. Of course, the issue of your own security isn’t the only concern found in this new ambiguous paradigm of IoT. One of the biggest problems with overwhelming presence of smart devices is the issue of privacy, which seems to be pretty burning even now, without smart cars and intelligent washing machines.
“In the longer term, the Internet of Things means ubiquitous surveillance. If an object “knows” you have purchased it, and communicates via either Wi-Fi or the mobile network, then whoever or whatever it is communicating with will know where you are. Your car will know who is in it, who is driving, and what traffic laws that driver is following or ignoring. No need to show ID; your identity will already be known. Store clerks could know your name, address, and income level as soon as you walk through the door. Billboards will tailor ads to you, and record how you respond to them. Fast food restaurants will know what you usually order, and exactly how to entice you to order more. Lots of companies will know whom you spend your days – and nights – with. Facebook will know about any new relationship status before you bother to change it on your profile. And all of this information will all be saved, correlated, and studied,” Bruce Schneier, Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and CTO of IBM Resilient, wrote in a piece for The Guardian.
Another concern about user privacy is that the data won’t be used solely by those who wish to sell you something. It’s just as likely a dreamboat for the Big Brother, whichever form it may take in the future.
“As The Internet of Things evolves into a reality, with everything from smartphones, TVs, fridges and even cutlery being wired into the mainframe, the opportunity for governments, advertisers and criminals to monitor every aspect of our lives has never been so great. Whereas before, the FBI had to install bugs in our homes to carry out surveillance operations, now we’re actually buying them and installing them ourselves,” IoT expert Mike Wheatley wrote for SiliconAngle.
However, some believe that this dystopian vision is a bit far-fetched, and a more realistic approach should be taken instead. Thus, Adam Thierer is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, wrote:
“Most IoT vendors will jealously guard the data they collect for sound business reasons, namely, (1) they want to capture the value of that data themselves; and (2) they want to avoid the reputation hit they would take if others got their hands on it and misused it. More importantly, they’ll want to avoid the legal hit to their bottom line that could arrive in the form of expensive class-action lawsuits or Federal Trade Commission investigations that would follow data security lapses or privacy screw-ups. So, there are good reasons to take a deep breath and realize that most of the worst-case scenarios about the Internet of Things won’t come about.”
Compatibility. The diversity of vendors and manufacturers could either lead to a universal standardization of software and hardware, or, on the contrary, result in a war of standards as was exemplified by the epic war between IBM and Apple back in the days when having a photocamera in your phone seemed like a downright ridiculous idea, but wearing a wind-swept tower of Babel on your head and gargantuan pads on your shoulders did not. So, there’s always a concern that certain IoT items won’t be compatible with other IoT items, and even those that can work together won’t last for a long while as the rapid development of hardware and software would make them completely obsolete just in a couple of years.
“Cost and functionality of the technology will most likely be deciding factors that come to mind immediately. However, other factors that should be taken into consideration as well are whether the technology has been tested and proven to interoperate with the IoT platform you are using and how easily the technology can be integrated. Two sensors that seem to be similar at first, may vary entirely in the communication channels or data-encoding methods and protocols they use,” tech journalist Nancy Pardo wrote.
The complexity and utter lack of commonly agreed-upon understanding of the Internet of Things is also a problem that adds to the compatibility issues.
“I’m extremely confident that IoT will remain fragmented for a very, very long time. Like, a forever long time. That’s because IoT is fundamentally different than the types of computation that have preceded it. “The internet of things” is an immensely broad term,” says Zach Supalla, CEO at an IoT startup Particle.
Regulation. All those concerns, however, can be addressed by a proper regulatory framework, and, according to a research by Gemalto, a Netherlands-based cybersecurity company, 96% of businesses and 90% of consumers wish there were some regulations to govern the IoT sector.
However, right now the industry has virtually no regulations, or at least none of the kind that could be applicable universally. There is no law that would regulate standards for IoT devices; no law that would properly address the questions of security; and no law that tackles privacy issues associated with the enormous amounts of personal data used by smart devices in the Internet of Things.
“Until there is confidence in IoT amongst businesses and consumers, it won’t see mainstream adoption,” Jason Hart, CTO of Data Protection at Gemalto said.
All in all, it seems that the Internet of Things is yet to settle an enormous amount of questions before it can become anything even remotely resembling those sci-fi visions that are commonly associated with it.
IoT started as a certain and well-formulated idea. Over the next 19 years it has become something much greater, though it came at a price of losing a well-determined aim and even an unambiguous definition. Still, it has features that everybody agrees upon: connecting the objects we routinely interact with into something bigger than the sum of their parts.
Yet, the extreme diversity of possible conceptual visions, the lack of any universal standard for IoT software and hardware, and absence of any regulations to tackle security and privacy concerns all stand in the way of the technology’s proper development. It would take a long time to develop a proper regulatory framework that would perfectly fit the technological capabilities of the Internet of Things without stifling innovation. However, first of all, both lawmakers and the creators of IoT tech have to answer the question of what do they really want this smart world to be.