What is the Internet of Things?

Well that’s a term, that is talked about as being one of the growth drivers for big data within the Internet. But what is the Internet of Things or IoT as it is often called. The IoT is the collective name given to all Internet connected devices. These devices can communicate with us via smartphones and tablets or with each other over the Internet and other networks. IoT devices can be found in the home. They can be found in industry, transportation and city infrastructure. Autonomous vehicles and robots are part of the Internet of Things. There are currently estimated to be 23 Billion connect IoT devices. By 2025 this could be as high as 75 Billion.

IoT in the Home

Let’s look at some of the IoT devices that are found in the home. Smart Electric Meters, particularly in the United Kingdom, are one such example. A smart meter can monitor your power consumption and send meter readings to your supplier. That sounds basic, but automating that function means no more mistaken meter readings, no more estimated bills and no time wasted trying to resolve those issues. And what about controlling you heading remotely? There are many solutions that allow you to control your central heating via a smartphone. Home security is another area. Internet enabled CCTV and baby monitors. Internet enabled TV’s are common. We’ve all heard about Internet connected appliances. Fridges that monitor sell by dates and order food when empty. These may be impractical or undesirable, but these ideas do get people to talk and think about the possibilities. What about those AI assistants,Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home?

IoT at Work

Manufacturing is probably taking the lead with increased automation and machine intelligence. IoT can help with tracking inventory and ordering parts. Machine intelligent robots will take on more tasks within manufacturing and warehousing. All these systems will need network connectivity to be of maximum use.

A Boston Dynamics Robot
A Boston Dynamics Robot

Farmers are also using connected sensors to monitor both crops and cattle in the hopes of boosting production, efficiency and tracking the health of their herds.

The possibilities are endless. It is likely that connected devices and the IoT will creep into the workplace like computers and the Internet did through the latter part of the last century.

IoT in Transport and infrastructure

Self-driving cars will form part of the Internet of Things.We all know about autonomous vehicles and they will be connected to communicate with each other for collision and congestion avoidance and allow us to order self-driving taxis and control their use.

A Waymo self driving car (formally Google)
A Waymo Self Driving car

We hear less about smart transport infrastructure. Smart motorways that dynamically open and close lanes to help with congestion or feedback information about roadworks and incidents.

We also talk about Smart Cities. Milton Keynes in the UK has trialled a city-wide public ‘internet of things’ network. It allows drivers to use smartphones to find free car parking spaces. Connected bins can signal to the municipal authority when they need emptying. Again, there are endless possibilities. All aimed at creating efficiencies and using less energy.

Is the IoT Secure?

With all this automation, whether it be in the home, at work or in transportation, it is inevitable that large amounts of personal data will be transmitted. So, is the IoT secure? Essentially yes, all the technologies exist to build highly secure networks. We have TLS security that is used to encrypt transactions over the web. IPSec at layer 3 and MACSec at layer 2 are other highly secure encryption technologies. There are other technologies too, all of which can provide a robust security to both encrypt and authenticate IoT data. The question is do current IoT solutions have the necessary level of security builtin. We have heard about baby monitors being hacked. Security needs to be managed.Devices will need patching from time to time as vulnerabilities are exposed. Encryption key handling and security certificates need to be managed. This all adds complexity and cost, but are the potential costs benefits worth it?

IoT and Internet bandwidth

The IoT needs network bandwidth and it is one factor driving bandwidth demands for increased Internet capacity. 5G will be a key enabler for IoT and it is worth looking at how mobile data bandwidth has changed over the years.

Technology 1G 2G 3G 4G 5G
Start/Deployment 1970-1980 1990-2004 2004-10 Now Soon
Data Bandwidth 2Kbps 64 Kbps 2 Mbps 1 Gbps 20 Gbps

5G offers the possibility of 20GBps of data per endpoint. We all know that we do not get 1Gbps to our smartphones from 4G data, so clearly there must be a radical upgrade to the infrastructure. However, given that much of the IoT is geared to autonomous vehicles and Smart Cites, 5G will be essential if IoT is to realize its true potential.

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence within the IoT

It is easy to envisage how machine learning and artificial intelligence can benefit the Internet of Things. They are fascinating subjects. The two are related but subtlety different, so a basic understanding is useful for this introductory piece.

Machine learning is a method of data analysis that automates analytical model building. It is a branch of artificial intelligence based on the idea that systems can learn from data, identify patterns and make decisions with minimal human intervention. We are all familiar with this. Machine Learning allows the Web to show us adverts that it believes are relevant to us based on the pages we visit and the products we search for. Having a robot or self-driving car adapt its it behavior based on new data without human programming or inputs,is an example of machine learning.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is more about how a device perceives its environment and can it make “cognitive” decisions based on that environment that mimic human decision making. It is less to do with processing of big data to identify trends and more about how a device reacts to a situation.

Artificial Intelligence can be divided into two categories. Narrow or Weak AI, and General or Strong AI.

Narrow AI is designed to perform one task at a time and to continue improving its execution. The objective is to find an automated solution to a problem or simply improve something that already works and make it better. Narrow AI is the most common form of AI and example are such things as self-driving cars, facial recognition and AI assistants like Alexa or Google Home.

General AI is the next step toward more comprehensive machine intelligence. Rather than focus on one task, the objective is to teach the machine to comprehend the world around it and reason very much like a human would. I will look at General AI is greater detail in a later post, but for now the focus of AI in the IoT is narrow AI.

Learning more about IoT

If you want to experiment with the IoT to learn more and you like to build projects, then there is no better way than to acquire an Arduino Controller or one of the many compatible systems on the market. The Arduino board is an open source hardware controller that can be programmed using well defined java-based libraries in a neat, easy to use integrated development environment(IDE). The system is low cost and is supported may a myriad of low-cost sensors of all types that can be used to build IoT related projects. The possibilities are endless and there are many sites on the Internet to give you guidance and inspiration.

An Arduino Uno Board
An Arduino Uno Board

Some Useful Links

Official Arduino Site

Official Boston Dynamics Site

Official Waymo Site for Self-driving Cars

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