The Internet of Things

Philip Howard

Written By:
Published: 31st May, 2013
Content Copyright © 2013 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

The Internet of Things is starting to get almost as much hype as big data although in this case I am not sure that it is misplaced.

The Internet of Things was first described by Kevin Ashton in 1999. He wrote that "computers - and, therefore, the Internet - are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information. Nearly all of the data available on the Internet was first captured and created by human beings - by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a bar code. Conventional diagrams of the Internet ... leave out the most numerous and important routers of all - people. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy - all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. And that's a big deal. We're physical, and so is our environment ... You can't eat bits, burn them to stay warm or put them in your gas tank. Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more…. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things - using data they gathered without any help from us - we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best. The Internet of Things has the potential to change the world, just as the Internet did. Maybe even more so."

Basically, the idea is that virtually everything can be instrumented and the information generated by sensors, meters, log files and so on can be analysed to support what IBM has for some time been calling the Smarter Planet.

However, there is a caveat - and that caveat is that the term "Internet of Things" is something of a misnomer. This is because the collection and analysis of data doesn't have to go via the Internet. Call detail records are not, for example, collected via the Internet. Indeed, in some cases it might be better if we didn't use the Internet. For example, suppose that you have online sensors on an aeroplane monitoring the flight control and engine status in real-time. You would not want this system connected to the Internet - if you did that then the system could be hacked and, bearing in mind that modern aircraft have fly-by-wire and autopilot systems, then, potentially, a terrorist could remotely take control of the plane: and we can all imagine the consequences of that. So, yes you want real-time monitoring but that needs to be isolated to the plane's environment and you also want to analyse the results once the flight is over (to help with things like fuel efficiency, preventative maintenance and so on), but that needs to be handled differently.

There is a brighter side. As Robin Bloor has pointed out, what we are doing with the Internet of Things is to make existing things smarter: retro-fitting intelligence into what we have already got or, in some cases, simply making extended use of the information that was already been collected but then thrown away. Going further forward there is potential to build things better: a lot of things (Robin quotes the example of sluices to prevent flooding) in our world have simply been constructed by rule of thumb and based on experience but the Internet of Things provides the opportunity to build things smarter: to have intelligent flood prevention, for example; or to have intelligent speed limits that reduce speed limits to 20mph during the school day but not at 3.00am in the morning, or which adjust according to weather and traffic conditions.

The Internet of Things is really only starting but I think Kevin Ashton was right: it will change the world.

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