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The internet of things is everywhere: But what is it?
Our world is hyper-connected, with social media, smart tech, wearables, and apps meaning we’re constantly online. But it’s only going to get more advanced as we move further towards to the Internet of Things.
But what is the Internet of Things?
An easy, if ominous, explanation is in an episode of The Simpsons called “House of Whack”, in which the Simpsons buy a self-running automated ‘Ultrahouse’, complete with three celebrity voices (Matthew Perry, Dennis Miller, and former Bond himself Pierce Brosnan).
The basic concept of a house that can do everything itself ties in nicely with the Internet of Things. Of course, this episode of The Simpsons is part of the Treehouse of Horrors series, so the house falls in love with Marge and plots Homer’s downfall.
The Ultrahouse is a heightened take on what the Internet of Things could become, but the comparison is likely far truer than The Simpsons ever intended.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a concept that will only grow over the coming years as connected tech continues its steady evolution. The IoT is a robust concept but, at its most basic, it’s the idea of connecting any device with an on/off switch to the internet or other devices.
Think of it like this: you’ve left milk in the fridge and it’s gone off so your fridge texts you to let you know that you need to buy more. While the idea of your fridge texting you sounds nonsensical, it’s a fair comparison.
According to Dr Kevin Curran, a professor in Computing and Engineering in Ulster, humans could be receiving more texts from machines than humans within the next five years. He said, “Your refrigerator will let you know when you’re running low on milk; your dishwasher will inform you when it’s ready to be emptied.”
While current technology still has a long way to go, the fridge ‘eco-system’ is a basic and very achievable idea—and very much aligns with the Internet of Things.
In a nutshell: the Internet of Things is a hugely-connected network of things linked to the internet and other devices—where things include people and tech.
With digitally savvy young people, an increasing focus on computing in the curriculum, and an influx of devices with broadband-capabilities, we are currently still very much in the birthing stages of the Internet of Things, but in a couple of years the idea of a texting fridge will be a given.
But what does that mean for the average consumer or for security concerns? How far into the future is the texting fridge? And how safe will it really be if we’re constantly connected and broadcasting our every move to our technology?
What does the Internet of Things mean for the average person?
While a hard-and-fast rule of “anything that can be connected will be connected” seems too catch-all and vague to be a reality, it is likely that some level of connection is what’s facing us, Luddites and non-Luddites alike.
For the IoT to work on the level of connectivity as intended, developers and tech-types will need a detailed look into our lives. Let’s say you make tea and toast every morning when you get up. You set your alarm every morning for seven so you’re in the office for nine. In this theoretical future, you’ll tell your alarm when to wake you and the alarm will alert your kettle to start boiling water to make tea.
That’s a lot of data on how you live your life right there.
On a small scale, the Internet of Things can be considered invasive and will hinge on how much you’ll be willing to tell your tech—and in turn the companies and developers creating the tech. But on a larger and more fanciful scale, the IoT has the potential to regulate whole cities or transportation.
The Internet of Things is limited right now by tech and budget and security concerns, but give it five more years and we’ll be at an all-time high with 25 billion connected things by 2020, every single one of which could be plugged into the mainframe of a smart city—or even an eventual smart world.
But that’s a long way away, and there’s still an awful lot of research, testing, and development to be done—though certain countries are taking bigger steps than others. For example, the UK is actually quite forward-thinking when it comes to incentivising smart tech. In Scotland, £24 million is up for grabs to develop technology that will make Glasgow ‘smarter, safer, and more sustainable’.
This money is intended to go towards initiatives like sensors that will be attached to street lights to measure noise levels, air pollution and more. Down the line, the same tech will be used to monitor traffic, lighting, and crime.
Bristol is in the midst of an experiment to develop a wireless network specifically for the Internet of Things and smart city developments. The aim of the experiment is to develop connectivity that uses less power than Wi-Fi and mobile data, as well as turning Bristol into a lab to better understand big data and problems like traffic and pollution.
While it all might sound very advanced, the Internet of Things intends to make our cities smarter and our people more productive. Like aqueducts and industrial revolutions before it, the Internet of Things intends to change the world.
But where is the IoT at right now?
Current examples of the Internet of Things
As we said, the Internet of Things is still taking baby steps. While Smart Cities are in development, we’re still a long way off true integration—with the exception of a South Korean city that was reclaimed from the sea and specifically built to be hyper-connected.
Songdo is the first real smart city—though more are coming!
But let’s take a step back from such large scale tech and look at smaller, real-life examples of the Internet of Things to really contextualise it.
Nest is probably the most accessible and approachable of the current crop of smart tech. Chances are, your mum is likely familiar with Nest and might even have one of their thermostats installed in her house.
The Nest thermostat is easily the most recognisable Internet of Things tech piece, and is an inter-connected set of thermostats and alarms that lets people control the temperature of their house from just about anywhere on their mobile phone. In early 2014, Nest was bought by Google for $3 billion .
2. Walt Disney MagicBand
Disney are one of the first big companies to embrace IoT with their MagicBand tech, a colourful wristband that actually taps into a visitor’s whole holiday plan with My Disney Experience.
With the MagicBand, visitors can enter the park, unlock their hotel room, and buy food and merch—as well as having fast access to the various activities or experiences they organised online.
Wearables are the perfect example of the Internet of Things in action. Fitness wearables in particular measure sleep patterns, nutrition, heart rate, perspiration and more, with much of the data centralised to a smartphone app for easy access.
But what about security? Will a hacked smart toaster be a doorway into your whole network?
Apart from the cost, security is the issue that comes up time and time again with the Internet of Things. In the future, the intention is to connect billions of devices, including cars and homes, to one giant interconnected mainframe.
If someone hacks your kettle will they have access to your network? And how much data will the average Joe be expected to share with companies and developers? Will privacy be a moot point if the tech in your home needs your daily schedule so it can be programmed to meet your needs?
And what will companies do with the sheer amount of data they’ll have? Right now, data sharing and privacy are huge topics of conversation, and a more connected world will demand serious conversations and legislation to protect people. Is that all ahead of us? Will one company step forward and spearhead the IoT revolution?
Right now, it’s a long game that will involve much waiting. IoT is an interesting concept and the developments are bound to be fascinating. Until then, we need to keep living our lives and adapt as it happens, as past generations did before us.
If you’re really curious, you could try asking your fridge to see what it has to say for itself!
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