A journalist recently interviewed me on the topic of “the Internet of Things” (IoT). I thought you might be interested in some of the questions and answers. The IoT is definitely going to be one of the biggest trends in technology in the next decade.
How would you define the Internet of Things?
The IoT is about “smart objects”. These are non human objects that are connected to the Internet. IBM’s “smarter planet” website (http://www.asmarterplanet.com) sums it up nicely by referring to these objects as “instrumented, interconnected and intelligent”. It’s about objects that can be interacted with remotely, can respond to remote interactions or can do what they do autonomously.
About 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people are connected in one way or another to the Internet (http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm). Estimates suggest that there will be about 75 billion objects directly connected to the Internet by 2015.
For over a decade we have been promised this connected world – a world where everyday objects from food to clothes to pills and pets are tagged, linked and ready to communicate with one another and with us – but where is it?
It’s coming. This is the problem with technology right now. Our imagination is running ahead of our implementation by about a decade. Many of the promises have been fulfilled. Pets are now mainly tagged. We’re “tagged” (or choose to geotag ourselves with Facebook Places, Foursquare or Gowalla). The tracking of palettes and containers by logistics companies is almost universal. We have the technology, we just need to integrate it now into everyday life in a way that is both useful and cost-effective.
Probably the most effective use of the type of information IoT will open up for us is GPS / Satnav systems. Every square foot of the earth’s surface is now “connected” and you can be located in what is effectively a digital map of the earth’s surface. We have so quickly taken stanavs granted that we forget what a revolution it has been to know exactly where you, where you want to go and be able to navigate through – and around – physical objects in order to get there. It is remarkable. But just accepted as normal. The same fate awaits most IoT innovations.
When will this magical connected world kick in? How will it work?
It is already working around us, but its impact will be felt more and more over the course of this decade. It’s impossible to say when and where aspects of this connected world will emerge. Different industries are working on different aspects of it. The global economic downturn has made some companies a bit nervous to invest in some of the IoT technologies, but they’ll start to do so in the next few years as they look for ways to gain competitive advantages in their industries.
I’d guess that highly competitive industries with very little product or service differentiation are ripe for IoT to take hold. Motor cars are already filled with smart objects and it’s only a small step to connect them to the internet. When last, for example, did you try and fix your own car, slipping under the hood on a Saturday afternoon? Wouldn’t it be great to get a text message from your car warning you not to take any long trips today? Another industry that will benefit from smart technology is the green industry. Allowing light bulbs to regulate themselves (switching off when the ambient light is bright enough), or your garden sprinkler system to connect to the weather forecast before deciding to automatically switch on or off. These would be in demand by increasingly ethically minded consumers.
How do you see IoT truly affecting consumers on a day to day basis on the following levels – today, in 5 years, in 10 years?
IoT will affect every part of our lives. In particular, it will allow us to stop concerning ourselves with some items in life that are trivial, but take up time and energy. For example, every light bulb in your home could have a sensor in it. When the lightbulb gets near the end of its useful life, it will send you a message (email, text, or something similar) to request to be changed.
Is this Skynet? Does the future of IoT hold the potential to take over from humans?
Yes, this will very much take over from people in the near future. It will do to low level supervisor and management roles what combined harvesters did to farms, and robots did to machines. We won’t need the people who watch things for a living, because the things will watch themselves and remotely send information and request assistance if they need it. For example, if everything that can be known about a product can be found out by scanning the product with your smart phone, why would you need a salesperson? (That is already available, by the way).
But, no, this is not Skynet. The goal is to build intelligence into the connected world of things, but at this stage that “intelligence” is simply going to be preprogrammed algorithms and command and control type interactions. We only have to get worried when computers start to learn how to learn for themselves, and thus develop creativity and original thought. That’s a long way off, if it is even possible at all.
Are consumers too afraid to entertain the full potential of IoT? If so, why? And what do you believe needs to happen in order to change these perceptions (if so)?
This is very much a generational issue. Younger people will embrace new technologies faster than their parents or grandparents, mainly because they’re not scared to accept that technology can take over many low level functions of daily life. They are also less scared to experiment and see if something works. But the key to helping everyone accept the potential of IoT is to make it easy to use, functional and practical.
Can you provide me with examples of successful implementations of IoT?
At a recent IBM partner conference, I heard a presentation from Andy Standford-Clark, an IBM Master Innovator. In explaining some of the innovations that come out of the “smarter planet” labs, he gave a wonderful example of how social media is having an impact on the types of innovations he is pursuing. In particular, he is interested in “tweetjects”, or objects that tweet. If sensors can capture any information, then programs can be built to automatically share that data via social media platforms, and this allows it to be broadcast to anyone interested in watching the data.
Andy lives on the Isle of Wight, and commutes nearly every other day to IBM’s HQ in Hursley on the UK mainland. He was constantly frustrated by the lack of information on the ferries that transport him back and forth. But, being a tech innovator, he put his training and passion to work. He found out that every ferry had a device that broadcast its exact location. A simple piece of equipment allows you to pick up these broadcasts, and track the position of any boat anywhere. The Redfunnel Ferries (www.redfunnel.co.uk) he used had these devices, and each one had its own unique signature. It was a simple task to write some software that determined in which direction the ferries were travelling, and to convert this into tweets about when ferries were arriving or leaving various ports.
Initially, Redfunnel Ferries simply pointed their website to his Twitter feed, until (on 1 April 2009), he started messing with the feed, announcing that ferries were arriving at Milton Keynes, for example (that’s a landlocked British city, many miles from the coast). They realised that they needed to take over the feed system that he had created and integrate it with their own computer systems, thus owning the information that their clients now found so valuable. For more information on the “twittering ferries” see http://stanford-clark.com/ferries.html
What IoT solutions and technologies are prevalent today?
Many engineers are starting to use remote sensors on important structures. The Economist recently reported on how remote sensors are now used to keep check of bridges – a job that used to be done by an engineer. See http://www.economist.com/node/17647603. This is an example of a whole range of monitoring solutions that are rolling out in multiple industries. The key to the development of these in the future is to distribute the analytics so that many different people and systems handle the monitoring process. This will allow “intelligence” to grow in the system.
What IoT solutions, ideas and theories have been around for a long time? How long? Will they ever work? What ideas are pipe dreams, and what ideas do you feel will change the future?
Probably the oldest IoT solution is RFID. RFID Radio-frequency identification is an automatic identification method, relying on storing and remotely retrieving data based on a chip embedded in an object. Linked to that is a more up to date system known as EPC (Electronic product codes), which Is a global numbering scheme to uniquely identify any object in the world. EPC compliant tags have been used by several RFID rollouts, for example with Walmart. EPC is primarily concerned with tracking an object through the supply chain.
Does IoT have the potential to radically transform our daily lives and improve the quality of life for many people? If so, how? Are there real world examples?
I think the biggest short term advantage is in monitoring the world around us and intelligently making decisions for us or providing us with valuable information for our own decision making. Sensors in our cars can warn us before a break down of a component occurs. This could be done to almost any electronic device in our homes and offices.
What do you believe are the biggest potential issues with M2M? Concerns that need to be addressed, problems and legislation i.e. who controls the data and how it is used?
I think M2M fears are overblown. The people who own the machines own the data. I know there are complexities in the system, but I am sure they will be overcome by basic pragmatics. I also think that the world is moving quickly towards more openness and less concern about keeping every bit of data private.