When we say that Internet helps us to connect we also implicitly refer to the fact that some of our devices can be connected and transfer data among themselves. Primarily, we are thinking about computers, mobile phones, tablets, e-readers. But what if every device we use on a daily basis, such as transportation vehicles, home appliances, clothes, city infrastructure, medical and healthcare devices, can connect via the global network to a remote center or to other device? This will give the term ‘connected’ a different, broader meaning.
This is the general idea behind the Internet of Things (IoT), a network of physical objects or ‘things’ connected via electronics, software, and sensors to exchange data with manufacturers, operators or other connected device. The main objective is to achieve greater value or service. IoT devices use the present Internet structure, not a separate/different Internet.
The most common sensors and parts currently used for device communication are the following:
- Radio Frequency identifiers (RFID): Electronic tags attached to items to enable tracking. Suitable for clothes, pets, box shipping/tracking.
- Universal Product Code (UPC): UPCs are on nearly all products, used in supermarket checkout scanning.
- Electronic Product Code (EPC): EPCs provide a unique identity for every physical object anywhere in the world, all the time. EPCs function like UPCs, but are electronic.
Even if the size of a single piece of data generated this way is quite small, the final sum is staggering due to the number of devices that can connect and the fact that they will be always connected to a network. Therefore the cloud computing industry will be a main player in the future IoT developments. Large parts of current IoT networks are actually parts of private networks behind the firewalls and passwords.
Internet of Things industries
Some of the most developed IoT industries include:
- Home automation: Providing access to home appliances from anywhere. There is no unified protocol, no industry web API standard.
- Health monitoring: Actively adjusting your health (insulin pumps remotely adjusted by doctors, pacemaker monitoring, etc). Creating data on your cycles or habits, yet with many possible security issues and arbitrary data upload.
- Transportation: Using IoT systems to keep track of information such as fuel usage, location, time, distance, as well as to anticipate maintenance needs in vehicles and optimise the use of resources (including fleets).
Other industries in which IoT is playing an increasing role include: energy, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, consumer applications. The overall concept of smart cities (where information and communication technologies are integrated into urban services and infrastructures to improve their quality and performance and increase the overall standards of ‘urban life’) is also strongly related to IoT.
The main issues
According to various statistics, there will be between 20 and 100 billion IoT connected devices by 2020. These devices continue to generate significant amounts of data that are processed and analysed. The International Data Corporation forecasted that, by 2020, the ‘digital universe’ will reach 44 ZB (zettabytes, i.e. trillion of gigabytes), and 10% of this overall amount would come from IoT devices.
This massive data creation raises major concerns on privacy and the protection of personal information. Some IoT devices can collect and transmit data that are of personal nature (the case of medical IoT devices, for example), and there are concerns about how the devices themselves are protected (ensuring their security), as well as about how the data they collect is processed and analysed. On the other hand, while information transmitted by a IoT device might not cause privacy issues, when sets of data collected from multiple devices are put together, processed and analysed, this may lead to sensitive information being disclosed.
The absence of data oversight also raises the issue of ownership of data. Many applications used in IoT are proprietary alongside the data created and generated through them. There are overhauls in security and privacy (of data, protocol, and devices), hence new regulations are needed. This is a future development that will require unified, global action and regulation, more than any other in a realm of Internet governance. New social contracts need to be agreed.
Predictions of financial development of IoT industry are growing and plans from manufactures are skyrocketing. Verizon predicts that the worldwide IoT market will grow significantly over the next few years, from $591.7 billion in 2014 to $1.3 trillion in 2019, with a compound annual growth rate of 17%.
A report published by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and Cisco Systems in early 2016 concludes that IoT is a significant development opportunity that can improve living standards throughout the world and substantively contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. The report outlines the increasing impact that IoT has in areas such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation, resiliency, climate change and pollution mitigation, natural resource management and energy.
Public and private initiatives
Governments have started to become more and more aware of the opportunities brought by the Internet of Things, and they are launching various types of initiatives in this area. The European Union, for example, has initiated the Horizon 2010 Work Programme 2016 -2017: Internet of Things Large Scale Pilots for testing and deployment, a funding programme aimed to encourage the take up of IoT in Europe. In the US, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is looking into reviewing the Internet of Things technological and policy landscape, and intends to issue a green paper that would identify key issues impacting deployment of IoT technologies, highlight potential benefits and challenges, and identify possible roles for the federal government in fostering the advancement of IoT technologies in partnership with the private sector. The Chinese government, on the other hand, has created the Chengdu Internet of Things Technology Institute, through which it funds research in various IoT related areas.
The business sector is also leading major IoT initiatives. Some examples include: Cisco’s Internet of Thing initiative, Intel’s Internet of Things Solutions Group, and the Open Connectivity Foundation.
Many agree that Internet of Things is the future of our ‘connected’ world, but again there are some concerns about the ‘ubiquitous computing’ revolution (computer science concept where computing is made to appear everywhere and on any device, in any location, and in any format in contrast to present ‘desktop computing’).