What is the Internet of Things?
During and after the recent Consumer Electronics Show, the number of Google searches for the phrase, 'Internet of things' skyrocketed. If you are one of the many people wondering what that buzzphrase means, you’ve come to the right place. Here is what the Internet of Things, or IoT, is all about, and why it’s a big deal...
Is Connecting Everything a Good Idea?
The IoT is a network of objects, each uniquely identified, which are connected and communicate with each other, or with centralized information processing systems. The objects may be “dumb,” with no information processing technology built into them: doorknobs, bags of lettuce, nuts and bolts, etc. But the ability to uniquely identify each one of them makes pretty smart things possible.
If you know a specific head of lettuce’s identity, you can know when it’s been sold or has passed its “use by” date. Actually, you don’t need to know; your inventory control system takes care of things for you. You don’t have to pay people to count heads of lettuce and check their freshness dates every day.
If you know a refrigerator’s identity, you can communicate with it just as you can communicate with a person whose phone number you know. You can learn what the refrigerator knows about what is inside of it; the state of its mechanical parts; its internal temperature; and when the door is opened and closed. You can even know the answer to that childhood mystery, “Does the light go out when you close the door?”
Tagging and Communicating
Uniquely identifying every thing in the world – or the ones that people buy and sell, at least – makes possible a more efficient, faster, and more accurate economy. The IoT can operate entirely without humans, the slowest, most error-prone, and expensive input/output devices. Those humans, in turn, don’t have to do mind-numbing, repetitive work; they are free to pursue higher, more human activities… assuming they can find another way to pay for food, shelter, health care, etc.
The IoT concept depends on having a unique identifier for every object connected to the network, and in Internet technical terms that means an IP address. There are a lot more things than people, so the IoT became practical only after the adoption of the IPv6 protocol, which provides 4.8×10^28 addresses for each of the seven billion people on Earth. Now, tech analysts such as The Gartner Group are predicting that over 20 billion things will be connected to the IoT by 2020.
How will all these objects communicate with the Internet? A variety of technologies, some yet to be fully realized, will enable your your your toaster, your fridge and all of its contents to send and/or receive data. RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and NFC (Near-Field Communications) both use implanted chips or digital labels that communicate via low-power wireless signals. Items with barcodes or QR codes can be scanned to identify them.
Some of these things are already appearing in homes. Smart TVs can connect to the Internet. Wifi-connected digital thermostats can send you email. Home security systems incorporate two-way wireless audio and video that allow you to see what's happening at home, or even unlock your front door remotely. (See What is Google TV? and Dropping in With DropCam.)
Who's Watching the Watchers?
And of course, there's no reason that humans can't be part of the IoT. For some, that raises all kinds of scary Big Brotheresque scenarios. But before you get too worried about the future, consider what information you're happily sharing right now. Your cell phone can reveal not only your location, but also the history of where you've been. The same goes for your car's GPS, EZ-Pass tag or OnStar system. If you use a credit or debit card, somewhere there's a log of where you were, and what you purchased. And then there's the NSA, which seems to have the ability to tap into your phone calls, text messages, emails, and web browsing habits. (See What Does the NSA Know About You?)
We can only hope that as the Internet of Things takes shape, someone will be thinking about privacy and security. We've already seen refrigerators sending spam; we certainly don't want remote-controlled talking vacuum cleaners threatening us in our homes, or third-world hackers flicking the bedroom lights on and off.
What would you like the IoT to do for you: find your socks, count your noodles, track your cats? Your thoughts are welcome, post a comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 14 Feb 2014
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- What is the Internet of Things? (Posted: 14 Feb 2014)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved