The Internet of Things and its role in our lives
by Phillip F and Fox Ruben
Strolling through the technical department of my local shopping-center I noticed how supposedly „smart“ all devices became. Starting off with common devices like smartphones, smartwatches, but also smart vacuum cleaners and even smart fridges. It seems as if a new era a „smart era“ is developing. However as I did a little research I found out that it’s not solely the devices that are defining this „era“ but the technological concept behind it. It’s called the „Internet of Things“ (IoT). Watching this new technology rapidly spreading in to all aspects of our lives I started wondering what potential future benefits it might provide and what challenges and risks we might face.
When the internet became available for everybody it transformed our lives. The internet changed the world by connecting different people from different places. From now on they could exchange information and communicate with another from all around the globe. The internet content was created, as Benson Hougland, the vice president at Opto 22, said, „by people, for people, about people“. That’s why it’s named the „Internet of People“. In contrast to that this new emerging internet will also connect „things“.
But how is this going to work?
The explanation is quite simple. We humans extract information from our environment via our five senses: hearing, smell, taste, sight and touch. Transferring this on to the IoT means that we give devices the ability to sense their environment and give them a network to communicate with each another.
A great example for an IoT device is the smartphone: It has a microphone to „hear“ us, a camera with which it can „see“, an accelerometer to detect our movement and GPS to determine our location. Smartphones are also equipped with infrared sensors to find out how close the phone is to our face when calling to disable the touchscreen to avoid any interruption by unintended connection with our skin.
Another widely spread gadget is the smartwatch or fitness tracker/bracelet that monitors the wearers heart rate, his sleep and documents how many steps he has taken. Smart fridges with cameras observing the inventory or thermostats that observe room temperature and air humidity are gaining popularity. There are smart coffee makers and smart front door locks that are controlled with an app on a persons smartphone. Even a new term the „Smart Home“ came into existence which defines a home equipped with lighting, heating and other electronic devices that are connected and remotely controlled by a smartphone or a computer. What all smart devices have in common is that they are either connected with another or as in most cases with a central controlling device referred to as the „anchor device“.
Knowing all this, how could a normal day look like in a „smart persons“ life?
For this thought experiment we take a look at the fictional life of Andy:
When it’s time for Andy to get up his smartphone remotely opens the blinds to let the morning sun fill the room before the alarm goes off. When Andy turns off the alarm a cascade of events is set in motion. The thermostat regulates the room temperature to the degree that Andy is comfortable with and the shower water is also preheated so he does not need to worry about being shocked by a splash of freezing cold water. After going for a morning run his smart watch tells him that he successfully exceeded his goal and his vital signs are normal. Back home the smart coffeemaker notices his presence and starts brewing a hot cup of coffee. After showering he enjoys his hot coffee while his smart home assistant informs him about todays weather. When he drives to work in his car he barely experiences any traffic jams since his cars navigation system works hand in hand with the smart city’s traffic surveillance system. His car, connected with parking lot sensors in the smart city, also guides him to next free parking lot. On his way to work his smart fridge sends him a message telling him that he’s close to running out of butter so he can stop by his local supermarket after work on his way back home. He’s also informed that the mailman brought new mail and that his wife arrived home safe and sound.
But imagine a different scenario in which something doesn’t run as smooth as shown above: On his morning run Andy’s chest starts to hurt, his heart rate is increasing over the extent that his smart bracelet sensing this sends a message to Andy’s phone telling him that he might be in danger.
Unfortunately Andy is having a heart attack but his smartphone immediately contacts the hospital, sending all his vital information gathered by the smart watch and his GPS position so that an ambulance can pick him up and rescue him immediately. Andy makes it out alive because he has just been saved in time.
However it’s not only the technic geek Andy who benefits from the internet of things but also big companies like Google, Samsung and Amazon that bet a lot of money on this new development. It’s speculated that the number of connected IoT devices will surpass the current mark of 25 billion devices by more than 50 billion in 2025 according to the Statistia-Research-Department. The IoT opened up a new market and a lot of entrepreneurs are already inventing devices and trying to secure their position on a global level.
In the industrial field it initiated the so called fourth industrial revolution better known as the „Industry 4.0“. In the Industry 4.0 an intelligent and independent factory is created, known as a smart factory. It includes intelligent machines and robots. In the smart factory autonomous network machines control the manufacturing processes based on a real time data analysis. This leads to three major advantages compared to the older industrial systems.
The first one is the highly increased flexibility.
Making tailor made products in industrial mass production possible. The new digital and intelligent value chains, created in the smart factory, enables it to react quicker and target-oriented on individual customer requests or market developments.
The predictive maintenance is the second big improvement.
Abrasion and problems are recognized before leading to downtime of production. The system perceives maintenance and repair needs before a possible downtime. With the use of data science and machine learning the system will either request a repair or will order a new component.
Last but not least there is a decrease in production costs.
The networked smart factory makes it possible to optimize the whole value chain. Real time data analysis helps making the production more energy and resource efficient.
In conclusion there are multiple benefits from the IoT:
It saves us time.
Since smart devices can take over simple tasks for us we can plan our time more efficiently, focus on more important things and enjoy our free time. A short reminder from the fridge spares us from an extra trip to the supermarket.
It saves costs and our environment.
By optimizing our energy usage for example by turning off the lights for us or preventing the house from unnecessary heating or cooling. And by organizing the traffic in a smart city we burn less fuel and harm our environment less.
It increases the quality of our life.
By taking over small tasks our life gets more luxurious and enjoyable. Medical treatments could be way faster, cheaper and more effective since time is being saved.
It delivers us more information more easily.
We can monitor our devices and remotely access them which means we have more control over our belongings and our time. It can possibly save our life since it’s able to recognize symptoms at an early stage and take action when we can’t.
It’s not as easy nor flawless as it might seem and there are a few challenges that have to be tackled first. Some of which are listed down below:
1. A minor one is the compatibility with each another since all devices should be able to connect and interact. The solution is quite simple: the industry will have to find some kind of standard which all brands will agree to.
2. Another challenge that is harder to overcome is complexity. We don’t want to focus on how hard these devices might be to set up since they are going to be optimized and will be user-friendly but will happen if one device fails? Depending on which device fails it might effect only this one or in the worst case all other devices as well. There must be some kind of easy backup plan otherwise all benefits are invalid.
3. The Industry 4.0 as part of IoT bares a very different and important challenge. What is going to happen with all the former employed personnel that will no longer be needed? Although the IoT gives job opportunities in different areas, job losses in others will be a possible consequence.
4. The in my opinion by far hardest challenge to overcome is the handling and security of backed-up data. On one hand critics fear that all of those systems could be used by the government to spy on its citizens. They fear that it could end in a society of total surveillance as pictured in the novel „1984“ by George Orwell. On the other hand they criticize how vulnerable the user is. For instance that a hacker could get a users private data if it was not well protected. There have been cases in the past where hackers got access to a users anchor device by hacking into less secure smart devices. The other way around, when hackers do gain access to a users anchor device they could not only monitor and remotely control all other devices but also commit crimes with them. It also happened that hackers stole data by hacking into big cloud providers that should secure their data but the end users have not been informed about it because companies didn’t have to. Since all smart devices can collect so much information a thief could know when a person is not at home and rob their house. Not only the misuse of our data by criminals is a problem but also by data collecting companies. A great example for this is the social media platform Facebook which not only did not take data-safety too serious but also gave data to Cambridge Analytical. In a lot of cases the consumer doesn’t know who is selling, buying or stealing their data.
As a conclusion:
The Internet of Things bares a lot of opportunities and improvements. It will be a common and unnoticeable part in our everyday life in the future since it’s highly available and cheap. Although there are some challenges and risks the possible future developments like saving time, money and the environment have to be taken into consideration. Efforts will have to be made to find solutions for the challenges so we no longer limit its full potential. Of course the benefits mentioned are just a small selection from a big variety of opportunities that the IoT enables us to improve the quality of our life.
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