Future computing: The Internet of Things

Some thirty years ago, the personal computer revolution began — and no other technology has evolved more quickly.

Now there a new revolution, often referred to as the Internet of Things. Here’s what you need to know about it.

The term Internet of Things (IoT) made little sense to me when I first heard it. I thought: “Oh no! Not another meaningless tech-industry marketing term — like Web 2.0.” But then I visited my pool-supply store and the sales person asked me whether I wanted to connect my pool pump to the Internet.

As you might expect, my first reaction was: “Why?” I left the store a bit bewildered and spent the next several months looking into the topic of new Internet-connected devices. What I’ve discovered took me by surprise — and I teach computer technology.

The Internet of Things extends far beyond just attaching your thermostat (or pool pump) to the Internet. In the broader sense, IoT could encompass any instance in which objects or organisms (including people) are fitted with sensors that collect and transfer data over a computer network. No human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction is required.

IoT isn’t driven simply by convenience; the ultimate goal is collecting and processing large amounts of data in real time. More than fifty years of technology discovery and development has brought us to this point.

For example, with nanotechnology (more info), we can now build data-collecting sensors that measure in billionths of an inch. These tiny devices are described as nanoelectromechanical systems — or the somewhat larger microelectromechanical systems (MEMS; more info).

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Building a ubiquitous data-collection system

These data sensors are so inexpensive and so tiny they can be placed everywhere: in cars, homes, clothes — and even in our bodies. That potential flood of data collection would easily overwhelm our current IPv4 Internet-addressing scheme. Which is why we’re moving to the more-capable IPv6 (more info).

This newer addressing system uses 128 bits, an address space so large that each person on earth could be given a few Octillion (10 to the power of 27) IP addresses and there would still be a lot of addresses left over. In short, it will be nearly impossible to run out of IPv6 addresses.

With many ways to collect data, we also need ways to move the information to the computers that will process it. In the past, this connection was via Ethernet cabling. But now we live a mobile world. Advances in Wi-Fi and cellular transmission rates now make it more practical to move mountains of data wirelessly. And if GPS is added to a sensor, we can know exactly where the data came from.

Data processing has also grown exponentially over recent years. Massive server farms and cloud-storage facilities make real-time processing of huge amounts of data — popularly called Big Data — cheap and practical. (Cloud storage is about a tenth the cost of local storage.) And all this “Big Data” is now stored in “Data Lakes,” where it might reside for years or even decades to come.

Currently, hard drives still do the heavy lifting in data storage. But tech companies are working on new forms of computer memory (RAM) and data storage. For example, Carbon nano tubes (CNT; more info) could increase storage in our devices up to a thousandfold — while using less electricity. It’s quite possible that in the next five to 10 years, your smartphone might have 10TB of RAM/disk storage and a month of battery life.

And what becomes of all this collected information? Businesses use sophisticated data analytics to process it — outwardly to “make our lives better,” but mostly to make a profit. For the most part, the information is cleaned, sorted, and combined with other data to build models of our online behavior. That information is then used essentially to convince us to purchase products and services.

Connecting everything to the Internet

What does the Internet of Things offer us today? It’s far more than you might realize. You might be familiar with products such as the Nest (site) thermostats and smoke alarms; or wearables such as Fitbit devices that monitor heath and exercise.

But IoT is rapidly expanding into more prosaic things; for example, I found a BBQ propane-tank sensor that will notify you that it needs refilling or that you forgot to turn off your gas grill. And then there’s that pool pump I mentioned that can be monitored and controlled via a smartphone app.

Other uses of IoT include monitoring your wine collection. Sensors embedded in corks report temperature, acidity, bottle location, and other properties. IoT sensors are being used in casino chips and golf balls to track location and movement. A golfer’s performance can be monitored and tracked over time. Parking spaces can be fitted with IoT sensors; as you enter a parking garage, you can be notified ahead of getting to it where an open space is located. Power companies are using IoT in appliances and solar systems to manage and track energy usage.

And that’s just the consumer side. Things get really interesting when you look at IoT for the business-to-business (B2B) market. Farming, automotive, security, and heath care are taking advantage of Internet connectivity.

In farming, for example, cameras have been mounted on booms attached to tractors. As the machines are driven though the fields, the cameras take images of each plant and also record its GPS location. An onboard computer system processes the images in real time and determines whether a particular plant needs a shot of fertilizer, pesticide, or water — or is doing fine. The health of the plant is recorded and archived (again, Big Data) so that farmers can make year-over-year comparisons.

For the dark side of electronics in farm equipment — and our cars — see a related Wired story. It tells why we don’t really own the vehicles we think we paid for.

Many newer cars already have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity built in. Your next new car will most likely have at least four high-definition (HD) cameras, a hundred or so performance sensors, and a cellular data-service plan — not for you, but for the automobile manufacturer to keep tabs on the car.

 

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You and millions of other drivers will be “testing consumers,” so manufacturers can produce better cars. But they’ll also be able to monitor wear and tear on individual vehicles. In theory, they could use GPS data to tell you, via your onboard navigation/information system, that it’s time to change the oil — and here’s the location of the nearest dealer.

Onboard cameras and computers can now prevent unsafe lane changes, assist in emergency braking, and help with parking. The videos from the cameras can be stored, so should you have an accident, the images can be downloaded and used for any follow-up investigation.

IoT is rapidly finding its way into security. For example, retail stores that suffer heavy losses to shoplifters might install wireless cameras. Though some are visible, others are hidden. Yes, that mannequin actually is watching you.

These connected cameras can capture the face of anyone who enters the store; they then immediately compare that information against a list of known shoplifters. If there’s a match, the store’s security staff can then track the person’s movements throughout the store.

IoT, Big Data, and cloud storage let stores share a common database of known shoplifters. Someone caught stealing at the local department store will be recognized and watched at the nearby home-improvement store. The next time you enter a store, check out your image on a conspicuously placed, high-definition screen; it’s there to remind you that you’re being watched.

Residents of my town are concerned about the number of robberies. To help the police, some homeowners are installing IoT cameras that are connected to systems running License Plate Recognition (LPR) software. Every car that drives by has its license plate recorded with the LPR software. If a particular car was used in a previous burglary, homeowners, neighborhood watch groups, and the police are immediately notified. When a large number of homeowners install these cameras, the path the burglars take can be tracked by police in real time. (This obviously raises privacy issues. It might also be adapted for unwarranted profiling.)

In health care, IoT-equipped pacemakers monitor heart rhythm. If a pacemaker detects an abnormal rhythm, it can notify a doctor, dispatch emergency-medical personnel, and initiate treatment. Moreover, if the device is equipped with GPS, it can send out your exact location.

IoT is assisting with pain management and neurological diseases. I was recently told that doctors have imbedded Windows 10 computers into patients. Using wireless connections and the Internet, doctors can remotely manage pain or, in the case of those with neurological diseases, send software updates that help patients cope with their illness.

The dark side of ubiquitous IoT applications

We are a well aware of security on our phones and computers. But the concept of billions of devices connected to the Web raises real concerns over hacking, privacy, and personal security. For example, there was an uproar when it was shown that smart TVs might be capable of sending private conversations back to Web servers. And it was recently shown that hackers could take control of cars remotely. Anything attached to the Internet is a potential target.

Potentially more difficult, will be finding a balance between security and privacy. For many, having your neighbor record your comings and goings and sending that data to police computers is unacceptable. But if you’ve been the victim of a burglary, you might think it’s okay. And will you be comfortable knowing that your car’s manufacturer — and possibly your insurance company — can track your driving habits?

Again, one of the foundations of IoT is targeted marketing. Not too long ago, a woman who was still in high school began receiving drugstore ads targeting pregnant women. The woman’s father (angrily) asked the chain store that sent out the ads why; he was told that, thanks to Big Data, it knew his daughter was pregnant. I’m sure that’s not the way we’d want to learn about a loved one’s private matters.

Gleaned from windows Secrets article by Doug Spindler

Larry The Computer Guy

Serving South Eastern Michigan

248-360-8967

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