The future is never far away, and more often than not, it is actually already with us.
We hear much talk these days of ''The Internet of Things''. There is much talk of fridges that can send a text message when you run low of milk. Central heating systems that switch themselves off when you leave the house (having noticed that your phone has left with you), and contact you while you’re out to ask when you’ll be home so they can warm the house for you ready for your arrival. Maybe even boil the kettle in time for your arrival, assuming you got the message about the milk, of course!!
This discussion of a new world continues to gain momentum, this new way of living, app and data controlled and interlinked, the various aspects of our life united through a wifi connection. A life designed to be easier, with technology on our side, what could possibly go wrong. But will it really change our existence for the better? Do we really need a message from our white goods to tell us that the washing’s done? Haven’t we come this far by managing to pick up some milk from the shop when stocks run out, without having to be told by the fridge?!!
While the idea of an Internet Of Things, this vast connected network of data and devices, was first seriously put forward in the late 1990s, it was in 1989 that a toaster was connected to the internet, and operated remotely in an experiment by John Romkey at the INTEROP Internet Networking Show. As we say, the future is never far away…..
Do we need 'The Internet of Things'? Will it actually help in any meaningful and useful way? Or is it just tech for tech’s sake? What does it mean? Well, simply put, in a decade or so, so many of our devices will be connected, to us, and to each other. The milk/fridge story is just a playful distraction really, and actually it slightly misses the point.
Of course we can get by without that kind of connection, but 'The Internet of Things' may well hold other promises. More useful and important promises, possibly. Actual solutions to some very real issues we face. New ways of living and doing business, more effective and efficient lives.
Clearly, it is not a new idea. We already have smart meters which track our utility usage in a bid to minimise that usage and make it more cost effective, and improving our individual and collective sustainability. We’re able, through an app, to control our heating and hot water remotely, and to monitor our use at any given time of the day.
In the UK, the government is pressing for all utility companies to roll out the technology as soon as possible. Monitoring and tracking are central to the IoT. For this interconnectivity to work, for us to be able to reap the benefits, we need access to huge amounts of data. Our boiler needs to know when we’re home, and our monitor needs to be able to tell us what power we’re using and more importantly, what power we’re wasting.
Its our access to that data which will allow us to live more cost effectively. Monitors and sensors gather the data, interpret and evaluate it, and, by connecting to devices and machines that physically react, the change, the difference, is made. Information leading to action.
The idea is, of course, scalable and with massive potential. From individuals and their personal devices, through business such as manufacturing, our buildings - both private and public, health and even agriculture, to whole connected cities.
We imagine the difference a fully connected city infrastructure could make. Well, in many ways, we don’t have to imagine. Traffic lights that connect to cars’ on board sensors can regulate traffic flow, bringing enhanced safety, and again, more economic fuel use. This particular use of the IoT is already with us, though usually only to be found in dangerous ‘hotspots’. Our SatNav systems automatically recalibrate to change our journeys in response to closed roads, accidents ahead, or dangerous conditions. Our cars are already monitoring our driving, our emissions, how we drive, at what speed and when. Younger drivers are already able to lessen their insurance premiums by fitting a black box to monitor their driving.
In health and wellbeing, we can monitor ourselves with wearable technology, and apps that record our activity, calories burned and distances covered. All monitored and evaluated for our benefit and under our control, so that we can adapt our lifestyles accordingly. 'The Internet of Things' is enabling better, more streamlined, cost effective living. A network of unlimited possibility.
Data collection is of course fundamental here. But we don’t necessarily wish to have every last detail of our existence recorded and analysed at every turn, and we certainly don’t appreciate the risk associated with these elements of our reliance on technology. So is the IoT safe? What about privacy? How secure is all of this information sharing, all this connecting? Well, obviously, cyber criminals will always to be able to hack, and this ubiquitous connectivity could lead us into danger. The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau reports a yearly growth in the amount of recorded frauds with a cyber element. It could be said that if we can’t protect our personal information with the connectivity we already have, it may be less than wise to add even more connected devices into our homes and business. A greater reliance on data means a greater focus and emphasis on data protection, and businesses who adapt IoT will need to ensure that developers build in extra protection to prevent data being repurposed, and to filter effectively to ensure irrelevant data isn’t recorded. Privacy and security are central to the success of the IoT in order to ensure that citizens are onboard with projects, and at ease with security procedures.
So while the IoT will undoubtedly bring new opportunities, new capabilities and experiences for individuals, business and cities, the need for regulation and strong data protection standards is clear.
The benefits to individuals and business from IoT projects are many. We are talking about the next digital revolution here. Increased productivity, a more streamlined way of working, less waste, and happier customers and staff are all potential benefits. But businesses should also be wary of running headfirst into ‘tech for tech’s sake’ solutions. The need for enthusing individuals and employees is clear, but 'The Internet of Things' could well be an interesting journey for us all into a bright new future.
A future which is already here.