The world of tomorrow has arrived, and it’s already radically changing our lives. It’s called the Internet of Things (IoT).
Imagine your refrigerator sensing that you’re low on milk, and telling your car to remind you to buy some on the way home – or simply knowing which groceries you prefer, and ordering them automatically from a food retailer. Or your car booking itself in for a service, because it’s time. Or your clothes detecting that you’re about to have a major health issue and calling for help. Or your house knowing your daily routine so well that your shower water is warm when you shuffle into the bathroom in the morning. By Dr Willie Oosthuysen, Altron group executive of technology & strategy
That’s what the Internet of Things is about: connecting objects to create intelligent, integrated network ecosystems that can sense, evaluate and act – either automatically, or at your command.
The concept of the IoT has been around since 1999, when academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology posited a global network of objects. Until recently the stuff of science fiction, technological advances in various fields – such as WiFi, GPS, nanotechnology and mobile communications – have converged to make it an incredible reality, and it’s rapidly influencing every conceivable aspect of human activity.
Central to this is the Internet, and how it is used. Until about 10 years ago it connected more people to each other than machines to other machines. At present, humans represent about 10% of wireless connections.
Potential connections are finite, limited by the number of (connected) people on the planet. Potential machine-to-machine connections, by comparison, are infinite.
It’s been estimated that in 2020, as many as 50 billion devices will be able to “talk” to each other, and be combined to benefit humanity in ways that we’re only beginning to imagine. The world population estimate for that year is about 7.75 billion, showing a ratio of six or seven devices per human.
Linked to all of this is the idea of big data: the more the machines know about you, the better they can predict your preferences, and the better they will serve you over time.
As it is, machines probably already know more about you than you think, and you see it in many ways. For example, have you noticed how advertising on Facebook mirrors things you’ve been browsing online? That’s big data at work.
Another example is food shopping: if you buy your groceries online, it’s likely that the retailer will suggest items based on your previous orders. The more the retailer knows about your shopping habits, the more specific its suggestions will be.
There are four major areas where we will see the IoT significantly impact our world:
The days of cars being simply a mode of transport are numbered. In future they will be mobile offices that drive themselves, using GPS and big data technology to navigate. Along the way, they will detect and report problems, such as potholes or accident scenes, helping every other vehicle on the road to travel the best routes.
They’ll also be self-diagnostic, indicating when they need attention and why. They will communicate directly with the manufacturer, who can order the parts needed.
When a vehicle is resold, its automatic audit trail could be used to determine its resale value, depending on service records, driver behaviour records, etc.
This is an area that remains greatly under-served by the IoT, but the opportunities are immense.
For example, if you wear a Fitbit activity tracker (which can already send your data for analysis to your smartphone or computer), you could share that data with your doctor and your medical aid. The information can be valuable for diagnosis and, when combined with data on other members, can help your medical aid mitigate its risks. The result is better, and more affordable, health insurance, and the proactive prevention of dread diseases.
The digitisation of services will furthermore streamline prescriptions, pharmacy deliveries and doctor’s appointments.
This is likely where many of us will directly notice the great changes that the IoT promises. It’s all about adding convenience to our lives.
Home automation, home security and energy management – such as smart lighting, temperature control, TV channel recommendations and warnings that appliances have been left on – will define the homes of the future. Overlay that functionality with big data, and your home will get to know you and your habits better and better, and before long there will be no place like your home.
We don’t yet know the extent of the possibilities around the IoT and homes. But it’s not inconceivable that in the future, eventually houses will speak to each other and form their own network ecosystems, which in turn feed into the municipal network ecosystem to create smart cities and smart electrical grids, driven by demand. And they will link with smart cars, which will report things such as potholes and traffic jams.
Before you know it, your home will tell you when the best time is to go out – and the best routes to take.
The challenge here is to make offices, factories, plants and farms smarter and more efficient.
Imagine you own a factory that produces a range of widgets. Some are doing better than others, and you can tweak your production schedule according to market prices and maximise your revenues more efficiently – without lifting a finger.
Or you’re a farmer. By digitising and automating your operations, you can tell your driverless tractors (that work around the clock) where to plough, and when. Using sensors, you can measure ground humidity and adjust your irrigation schedule. Big data and analytics will assist you to decide on the best pesticides to use for your circumstances. Once you’ve harvested, you can determine the best markets for your produce – and track it all the way there.
By implanting chips in your cattle you bring them online too, and monitor their grazing patterns, as well as temperature and weather changes. By digitising their feeding patterns and the medication they may need, you introduce greater cost efficiencies and ultimately produce a better grade of beef.
These are just a few examples. The IoT has immense potential for virtually every commercial sector, from banking and finance to retail stores. By digitising their operations, companies will be in a position to improve and scale up their activities without huge capital inputs, to the greater benefit and convenience of their customers.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG?
These possibilities are impressive, and we’re only just at the beginning of the IoT era. But there is great uncertainty too, because with these incredible positives come potentially disastrous negatives.
Most notable is the matter of data security, particularly as it pertains to you: who owns it, how confidential it is, how secure it is and how it can be used. Think about the information your doctor has about you, or Facebook, or even retailers. Who does that information belong to – you, or the holder?
What say do you have over how it is used, analysed and disseminated?
The potential for governments to gather intelligence about you, and for businesses and criminals to do the same, is enormous – mostly without you even knowing it. Typically, legislation and regulation lag several years behind technological innovation, so it may take some time yet before we will have clarity on how information and privacy are managed.
THE IMPLICATIONS FOR BUSINESS
A critical consideration is that the role of IT in an organisation is changing. No longer is it a support function for keeping systems going; it is rapidly becoming a sales and marketing function for companies, driving their decision-making, and this is fundamentally transforming how they do business. In order to benefit from the opportunities offered by IoT, businesses need to partner with organisations that can make the IoT a reality for them by building complete, integrated network ecosystems from computing infrastructure to wireless communications to logistics.
There is no question: the Internet of Things is the future of the world, and it’s already here. It’s by far the biggest Internet wave to surf yet, much bigger than what we have seen so far from Internet applications.