Internet of Things – What is It?

The scope of the digital revolution has spread over the last few years to devices we would not imagine needed a digital connection.   The media have latched onto this, calling it the Internet of Things (”IoT”). We’ve read of web-enabled fridges that will automatically order replacement food, robot cleaners that will make your home sparkling, and that the day of androids taking over mundane tasks is nearly here.

The reality is a little more prosaic, being the development of driverless cars, smart microwaves, and other digital improvements in transport and manufacturing.

In this series of four short articles about IoT, we will look in hopefully a non-technical way at what is meant by IoT, security concerns around its implementation, how it is affecting manufacturing and what is coming up.

IoT – a definition

Broadly speaking the IoT is about extending the power of the Internet beyond computers and smart devices to other devices, environments, and applications.   One commentator has put it very simply as connecting everything in the world to the Internet.

The process has been underway for a few years and is predicted to accelerate in the next decade.

Why does the IoT matter?

Connecting stuff to the Internet allows them to communicate. A good example is listening to music on a smartphone.  Your phone doesn’t store the music, just pulls it down from a storage location somewhere on the Internet.

Low-cost computing and ubiquitous connectivity enable synergy between the cloud, big data, analytics, and mobile technologies.  In a broader sense that makes devices smarter, and they can carry out mundane routine tasks previously made by people.   One commentator described it as “The physical world meeting the digital world—and they cooperate”.

The Technology base of the IoT

Most of the technologies used by the IoT have been around for a while.  It is only relatively recently that advances in different fields have come together to make IoT a practical proposition:

  • Micro-technology.  Low-power and low-cost sensors.
  • Ubiquitous Connectivity.   The expansion of cellular and WiFi coverage has made it possible to remain connected while mobile.
  • Standards.  New connectivity standards and protocols have made it a lot easier to connect devices for easy data transfer.
  • The Cloud.  Cloud platforms are  more and more common, allowing businesses and individuals to scale their infrastructure without needing to manage it.
  • Machine Intelligence.  There have been significant advances in machine learning and analytics recently.  Applying MI to Big Data gives businesses a competitive edge and can further allow IoT devices to carry out tasks previously carried out by humans.
  • Artificial Intelligence.  Having the data, and connecting to the devices that supply and use it, is not much use if it needs to be processed before acting on it.  New AI environments using natural language processing like Siri, Alexa and other conversational AI systems take the reach of the IoT into both business and the home.

How does it work?

A typical network has a central core where the main processing happens with devices at the edge, such as the PCs and smart devices that people use connected to it.   The Internet is simply lots of these networks all linked together.  An IoT network is exactly the same.

As an example, in an IoT smart manufacturing environment, the edge of the network is a mixture of sensors, operational devices like computer-controlled devices (“CNC”) and user-managed devices.  The sensors record what is happening, pass the information back up the network for processing, and the CNC devices act on the instructions passed back to them.  Operators and managers can see what is happening using their personal devices and if necessary can pass control instructions to the CNC machines.   A loop, if you like.

Why Use IoT at Home?

To take a very trivial example, you wake at the same time every working day when your alarm clock goes off.  Some days, everything goes well, other days things go wrong.  Your train is cancelled or it’s raining, so it will take longer to get to work.

If your alarm clock was an IoT device with an AI capability, it would know these things and reset your wake-up time to earlier to compensate for these problems. A really smart alarm clock would communicate with your IoT coffee maker to tell it to start percolating earlier so your coffee is ready now you are up earlier.

Why Use IoT in a business?

IoT provides better insight for a business into both internal and external operations.  The detailed level of information can be used to identify and implement new efficiencies in an operational process, improve the management of physical assets and assist with compliance with regulatory requirements.

It can also create an entirely new business model.  As an example, in the motor industry, a manufacturer’s involvement with a vehicle ends when it ships to the dealer, where the new owner purchased it.

Having a connected car means that a link between the manufacturer, dealer and owner is established.  Rather than an outright purchase, the owner pays a usage fee to the manufacturer or dealer based on how much they drive.  The manufacturer can also continuously upgrade the vehicle software.  One commentator, rather tongue-in-cheek referred to the concept as MaaS (Motoring as a Service).

Summary

IoT means many different things to many people.  As technology in its infancy and one with the power to generate profound social change, it has a long way to go.  Industry and commerce are already using IoT, linked with other emerging technologies like AI to improve their businesses, both internally and in terms of customer service.

To quote someone or another, I forget exactly who, “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.

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