IoT: A brave new world

  • TECH
  • Friday, 29 Aug 2014


A technology industry analyst predicts 2014 to be the breakout year for wearable technology.

There’s a big take-up in wearables, with more and more people sporting wristpieces that measure their lifestyle or sports activities or are an extension of their smartphones. 

Unlike earlier models, latter-day models are sleek and stylish. Google’s Glass has also been attracting media attention for quite a while now, just one of a number of smart eyeglasses. 

Wearable technology is only one small sliver of a much larger trend. Google’s acquisition of Nest, the home thermostat company in early 2014 is an example of the hive of activity in connected devices.

Apple’s inclusion of Homekit on its latest smartphone operating system (iOS8), allows developers to connect their devices to Apple’s platform, provides hints of what’s to come in the area of the connected home.

In 2014 Google unveiled its driverless car, which depends on sensors to sense its surroundings and navigate its way to the destination. All the major car manufacturers are working on some version of autonomous driving cars.

None of this is really new: besides sci-fi comics and movies, almost everything mentioned above has had a predecessor of sorts. 

Internet connected home appliances had a shaky introduction years ago, and healthcare wearable technology has been used to monitor the health of home patients for years. What’s new is the apparently sudden buzz around connected, intelligent devices.

This is due in large part to the confluence of a number of forces, including the increasingly widespread adoption of Cloud technology, the continuously dropping price of technology, the miniaturisation of devices, an ever more connected society, and the trend towards connected devices – the home, the car, appliances.

There are some common themes that can be extracted from the blitz of connected devices. The devices themselves are instrumented – with sensors of some kind that send data, which can be something as simple as the temperature of a machine component, to a smart meter that monitors the electricity consumption of a home.

Some instruments are more sophisticated, incorporating actuators (type of motors that is responsible for moving or controlling a mechanism or system) which can communicate with humans or other ‘things’, such as another machine part or computer.

Interconnected, Instrumented, Intelligence

These devices need to transmit the data someplace – that is, if the devices are connected.

A sophisticated system can receive data from one of its components, for instance, when it’s running too hot, and the system can decide on an action – perhaps to slow down the entire machine or to route the work from the overheated component to another part of the system. 

No humans are involved in such a scenario, but data can also be sent to humans, or pooled, or aggregated. 

Aggregated data can be very useful in discovering trends. A single piece of information about a sale in a retail store isn’t as useful as lots of sales in multiple stores – it can be used to find out all sorts of things, such as fast-moving items, when sales peak during the day, if sales are cyclical, and so on.

As data gathers speed from multiple sources, it can become difficult for humans to monitor but data can also be sent to a system which can make sense of it.

So the third component of this is some sort of intelligence, which can be a computer program, for example, which can analyse the data and discover trends, patterns or insights which can be acted upon, whether that is a new societal trend, a failing piece of machinery, or behavourial habits of people which are not obvious when data is looked at in isolation.

As devices become cheaper and more ubiquitous, all sorts of things will become instrumented – anything which can be instrumented, will be instrumented, in other words.

Your car, your laundry machine, your house security system, your refrigerator, your TV, your lighting systems, can be instrumented, allowing you to remotely control the lighting, turn on the air-conditioner and the laundry machine.

Your refrigerator will remind you that you’re out of milk and to go and buy some on your way home, while you can read your e-mail in your car by voice control, while the car will be driving itself with no input from you other than your destination.

The path to IoT

This isn’t science fiction, it’s something called the Internet of Things, (abbreviated to IoT for convenience) a term first used in 1999 which envisages that things – whether humans, animals, machines, systems, ecosystems – can be instrumented and connected. 

The scale is vast, encompassing heart monitors which send signals about your heart’s well being, to advanced military drones which can send TV signals back about potential targets. 

Even agriculture will be transformed: sensors can capture data about soil conditions, allowing precise and targeted irrigation with little waste of water, and harvesters equipped with sensors can capture data about yield as they harvest the crop, allowing very precise application of fertiliser to areas of low yield. 

Airborne drones capture data about the overall field condition, such as soil conditions.

Industry analysts predict that by the year 2020, a staggering 30 billion ‘things’ (or more, depending on whose report you’re looking at) will be instrumented and connected. 

For comparison, the world human population today stands at 7 billion people, so that provides an idea of the scale, not only of the sheer numbers of devices that will be connected and instrumented, but also of the sheer volume of data. 

(In an earlier article on Big Data, I mentioned that approximately 90% of all data ever produced by humankind was produced in the last two years or so, and that trend is only accelerating).

The IoT is going to change human society in significant ways, some of which can’t even be predicted yet. Healthcare devices will monitor patients’ wellbeing remotely, and advise or gently admonish them on lifestyle changes.

Sensors will monitor flow rates of water or oil remotely, even in out of the way places, consumers will be able to know the ‘history’ of the food that they buy in a market, from where it originated all the way to how it arrived at the grocers’ shelf, you’ll be able to monitor your house and turn on and off the lights and washing machine and TV with your smartphone even though you’re on holiday in a different country….the list goes on.

This is not to say that everything’s been figured out, because there are plenty of challenges still – what technologists call interoperability, or the ability of one piece of kit from one manufacturer to work seamlessly with other manufacturers’ kits, is just one such example, thanks to the absence of common standards. 

Another obvious one is security. If hackers can break into your e-mail account and steal your password today, or into a company’s system to steal information, what could that potentially do to entire machine controlled system?

What would it look like if a hacker hacked into your connected car’s computer and effectively hijacked your car? Or hacked into your connected home? Or a virus infected a connected factory’s automation system making widgets? 

Today we already bemoan slow Internet speeds, what more when a deluge of information, much of it from machines and computers, begins to go online? 

And how about privacy laws, already shaky in many instances today, how does that work when sensors pick up data that could tell on aspects of your life, or a company or an industry?

Analysts project that by 2020, about 40% of all data generated will be machine-generated data. There’s lots already, from aircraft automatically sending signals, to RFID tags used in millions of business applications daily, to sensitive oil drilling equipment sending messages to heart pacemakers sending out data about a patient’s health.

Remember the movie The Matrix? The one where the digital world was overlaid over the hidden, physical world? 

With the IoT, it’s not quite The Matrix, not by a long shot, but the physical world and the digital world will be drawn ever closer together, collecting data from the world around us in real time and allowing us to see things that were not evident before. 

It’s a potentially bewildering new world, but as with all major changes, also one that promises to be full of excitement.

Lee Yu Kit is the chief technologist of IBM Malaysia Sdn Bhd. Yu Kit is joining MDeC’s forum on  Internet of Things: Resistance is Futile that will be held on Sept 4, 2014 at Connexion@Nexus, Nexus, Bangsar South



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