The Internet of Things

25 June 2015

If you believe the hype, the “Internet of Things” (IoT) is about to take over the world.

The IoT is the concept of connecting just about any device with an on/off switch to the internet, creating a vast network of connected “things” that communicate with each other, apps and us.

The most widely used example to explain the IoT is the connected fridge (so much so that it’s (apparently) become something of a running joke at tech conferences).  The idea is that this fridge, when properly connected to the IoT, could monitor its contents and automatically add food to a user’s online shopping account when it is running low.  It could even suggest recipes based on the ingredients you’ve got left, remotely set your connected oven to the correct temperature and talk you through the cooking process.

To a point, the IoT is already on the path to world domination– smartphones, wearable tech and connected homes are fast becoming commonplace – but the real boom is yet to come.  Gartner, the leading tech researcher, estimates that approximately 3.9 billion connected “things” were in use in 2014.  By 2020, this figure is expected to reach 25 billion.  However, there are a couple of hurdles standing in the way if the IoT is to fulfil its true potential.

The technology that powers the IoT is already very much in existence, and there is certainly no shortage of novel ideas for how to implement it. The first major challenge facing tech companies is to decide exactly how to capitalise on the IoT's enormous potential. Part of the problem is that the initial focus has centred on gimmicky gadgets rather than credible problem-solving technology.  What if, rather than merely counting your eggs or checking the date on your milk, the connected fridge could learn how to operate more efficiently by analysing data from other fridges in the vicinity? Or use collective machine intelligence to identify (and even solve) model-specific problems?

The issue may seem petty in reference to a refrigerator, but it does highlight the need to harness the potential of the IoT in the best possible way in order to ultimately wring from it as much tangible value as possible.  The IoT scales up far beyond domestic appliances – “smart cities” (featuring connected traffic signals, waste disposal plants, energy grids, etc.) are fast becoming a reality, and the potential rewards for industry are huge, if the IoT is developed in the right way.  The manufacturing industry, where the IoT is useful for organising machines, tools and people in order to maximise production and efficiency, is arguably leading the charge at the moment.  It is surely only a matter of time until people-based industries catch up, finding new ways to derive comparable value from connected offices.

The second major hurdle in the way of realising the true potential of the IoT is the double-threat of security and privacy.

Much of the media attention in this area has focused on the consequences of hackers taking control of our personal devices (e.g. keyless entry systems for cars and houses). However, the biggest threat is not by the hacking of personal devices but the hacking of back-end systems and the data flowing through them. The data generated by a single IoT device could contain a plethora of personal information (names, addresses, health information, and credit card details). This alone would be of limited interest to hackers, but usage patterns across thousands of devices, which can be developed using analytical tools, would be a much more valuable commodity.

New connected devices will collect more data about us than ever before, often without us knowing it, and businesses need to find ways of adequately collecting, storing, protecting and disposing of this data or risk facing a real erosion of trust from consumers. Security experts argue that not enough is being done at present. A study by HP-Fortify in 2014 found that a number of devices were riddled with “basic security flaws, such as weak passwords, unencrypted network services, insecure interfaces and cross-site scripting risks.” If we are going to invest fully in the IoT, it is absolutely fundamental that these potential issues are properly addressed.

Only time will tell what shape the fully-formed IoT will take. Step one to world domination is working this out, and avoiding the temptation to fill our lives with little more than gimmicky kitchenware. Step two is to convince consumers that they can trust the IoT by ensuring security and privacy are built into its very core. Only then can the IoT really flourish.