What is the Internet of Things?

Category: Networking , Privacy

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?”
The Internet of Things

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...

 
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Most recent comments on "What is the Internet of Things?"

Posted by:

LenS
14 Feb 2014

So, when I eat several heads of lettuce - I love lettuce - I will ingest several RFID chips and be tracked, as I move about the city, as if I was a swarm of produce on the run... :)


Posted by:

B. Kalish
14 Feb 2014

I believe that you may have made an error when you stated, that the IPv6 protocol provides 4.8×1028 addresses for each of the seven billion people on Earth. Perhaps you meant to say 4.8x10^28???

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, quite right. The caret went missing when I pasted the text from one screen to another. Good catch!


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
14 Feb 2014

Bob ... Sci-Fi is really starting to come into reality!!!

As a kid, I read Sci-fi books, Space Patrol(oh, how I loved those books, as an eight to ten year old), then some Ray Bradbury books, in my teenage years and so on ... Many of those books would talk about doing school work at home, on a computer or the whole house "working" together, to achieve things, for the occupants, for a more comfortable living. Plus, there have been many, many movies and TV shows, about the future and what it will bring to us, mostly in the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits shows.

It is finally coming to pass. Oh, there still will be many more years, before it will come to pass completely ... But, what makes me so happy, is to see the start of things coming to pass, that I read about as a child and marveled at. :)


Posted by:

John R
14 Feb 2014

Yet, the simple task of providing the identification of the person calling my phone has been subverted! Messages like 'caller I.D. Blocked', 'out of area', 'unavailable' and others is unacceptable. If you don't want me to know who or what your are when you ring my phone, then don't punch in my number. Add that to the IoT.


Posted by:

john
14 Feb 2014

How is loT pronounced? Why did they not just call it ET. Everything Tech-checked? Yep, or etc, Etcetera.

EDITOR'S NOTE: It's just an acronym, so pronounce it like "Eye-Oh-Tee."


Posted by:

James Orpin
14 Feb 2014

Today, people are so soft minded. So lost in technology that they don't see what's in front of them. literally. The last thing I need is to be T-Boned at an intersection because the fridge is low on milk. Technology is a wonderful "thing" but from my experiences we have learned to let some one or some "thing" else do it. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten how we got here. Some one did "it" before some "thing" did. When the "LIGHTS" go out, I hope I wake up in Oklahoma with friends, who know why the fridge is empty, and know how to fill it the "OLD" fashioned way.

I like the idea of cell "PHONES". I like the PC for banking, shopping, paying bills. I like "horsepower" but prefer just a couple horses. I love my dogs because they don't lie to me. I like Bob Rankin because he does what I cannot.

I love my country, but sooo afraid the people in it will destroy it from within because they will let some "thing" do it instead.

And that's my "THING".


Posted by:

john
14 Feb 2014

To MmeMoxie. Can you just imagine how the people in the future will laugh at our comments? We go to buy the latest gizmo and it is an "old" model as we bring it from the store. The next generation is being produced as we are deciding on that hottest of items in the catologue, and the comic strip artists are light-years ahead of the "now". But it is interesting to observe. Then there is I with my laptop which is circa 2004, Best regards, john


Posted by:

Cheryl C
14 Feb 2014

IoT? No, thank you, I prefer to leave the humans in charge. Didn't anybody see iRobot???


Posted by:

Elizabeth Landry
14 Feb 2014

I want my house to be protected from intruders and have the police alerted if someone comes in while I am gone without having to pay a fee to a security company that won' t give me a contract because my credit has been ruined due to this economy.E


Posted by:

Gyppo
14 Feb 2014

Bob asked; [i]What would you like the IoT to do for you: find your socks, count your noodles, track your cats?[/-i]

I'd like it to bugger off an leave me alone. Or at least do something useful and imaginative rather than mundane.

Have we reached a state of mental atrophy where we are supposedly incapable of thinking for ourselves?

We don't have to worry about Big Brother when sheer bloody idleness on the part of humand will have the same effect.

Gyppo


Posted by:

Walter
14 Feb 2014

Anyone remember the book/movie Colossus (the Forbin Project)?


Posted by:

BaliRob
15 Feb 2014

@ James,

I was beginning to think that I was the only one; half way through Bob's article I was asking myself
- " Why should I (an educated man) have to keep asking others what this means and what does that abbreviation stand for?"

All of these innovations just make life so boring.

How many people stand in he middle of a meadow and smell the flowers these days? None probably - too frightened to make their 'wearables' dirty or
drop their tablets.


Posted by:

Clair G
15 Feb 2014

Technology is great the only problem I see is some evil person hacking one of these devices. I read a lot so I see all the bad stuff done with hacking and it is alarming. I feel some of this could lead to ruining the internet and that upsets me. Hope I made sense it sounded good in my head any way. Thanks Bob for great information.


Posted by:

Doug
15 Feb 2014

Well , doesn't this all sound so convenient. Problem is the formats. Iphone/pad etc. is still fighting android and then there is your doorknob company not wanting their lever company to work properly on the toaster bulletin board. And your Samsung fridge doesn't recognize those General Foods lettuce unless you buy their chip adaptors which your LG phone conveniently misplaced in its upper memory stack. ...
Compatibility will continue to be a problem just like nut, bolt and instalment incompatibility in Autos. Unless Google takes over the world and that would be against monopoly law.


Posted by:

Frank Starr
15 Feb 2014

I would hope the IoT would do what barcodes were _supposed_ to do: let a store have a continually updated inventory of stock on hand. So that I could go to the website for the closest location of that store, and see if they had that item on hand. AND, to see what the price was, so I could comparison shop from home.
HOWEVER, it seems that most stores want to circumvent that, to shortchange competition. So you have to either waste gas driving, or order online.
Maybe if CEO's are replaced by robots, then the IoT will be useful.


Posted by:

top squirrel
16 Feb 2014

People seem not to appreciate that efficiency has a price, and often that price is denominated in human values. Privacy is often the first essential to go, but people I know are saying, sagely, get over it, it's already gone.

Sorry, but when you lose privacy, which I define as the power to control the flow of information about yourself, you have degraded your life. Because you may have nothing to hide doesn't mean you should have to let it all hang out. I'm not ashamed of my body but I wouldn't go walking around nude in a public place, even if there were no possibility of police involvement. And you might think I'd almost welcome it; I'm tall, trim and muscular with a good athletic body I've kept in shape all my life, but though I have nothing to be ashamed of, I prefer to CYA.

Ditto with information. There comes a point when it's nobody's business but yours, and a challenge of "waddeyuh have to hide, eh?" deserves winding up in the garbage bin. It's a little like the cops saying "waddeyuh want a lawyer for? Only guilty people need a lawyer."

I use my computers every day and they are a great help. I would have a big problem without them. But if I had the power to push a button and thereby make it so that computers never existed, I would do so, and with a great sense of relief.

Right now I'm going through a lot of trouble protecting the privacy of my medical records, which, with electronic record-keeping, is very difficult (though possible). And, no, I really have nothing to hide. I just don't like it when other people I haven't picked nor given permission have the power to snoop on my essential information. One thing this makes me do is refuse to disclose information to doctors and to seal past medical records. I tell the docs I refuse to disclose to you because I know hundreds of people I don't know and have not authorized will have access to all my information and once it's out it can't be put back into the bottle. If you go back to paper records that's another story.
(A common riposte is "But what if you've had an accident and you're unconscious?" Well, I carry in my wallet a small card telling EMTs all they need to know.)

It's not so hard. I have no Facebook account nor credit cards (debit cards, yeah, but they don't cause your info to get posted in credit bureau) nor a cell phone and I never borrow money. Except for my driver's license I'm off the grid. (Oops, I do have a cell phone. But I almost never use it, never take it with me and don't remember the number. I take it with only when I'm traveling. Last time I looked for it I had a hard time finding it, didn't know what number to call to listen for a ring and I couldn't locate the charger, had to buy a new one. Oh, and it's a stupid phone I got from Wal-Mart for $15 and I got the Verizon plan that costs $2 a day unlimited use only for the days you use it, and the deposit I put down lapsed when I didn't use it in 8 months. How do you spell "dinosaur?")

All I wanted to illustrate here is it is possible to live, and pretty well, without the latest everything.

Every efficiency we pay for big time with human values. There must come a time in which we say, "enough!"


Posted by:

MmeMoxie
18 Feb 2014

At John ... You are so right on! Future readers will simply laugh at all of us, on what we think or believe. I think, we sort of do the same, with those in the past, who predicted the future, as well. However, it does seem that Jules Verne and H. G. Wells were closer to the truth, than not.

I know that, I will not see the full reality of the Internet of Things or IoT ... I will be buried, within the earth, when all of it, finally comes to pass. Heavens, I am 70 years old and yet, I have seen some awesome events, in my lifetime!

I have always said, that it was my Grandfather who lived in the most exciting era, of mankind!!! He was born in 1895, was old enough to know of and realize the importance of the Wright Brothers taking flight. Yes, it was only seconds in the air ... But, those seconds, changed mankind's transportation forever!

My Grandfather even learned how to fly a plane, as did my uncle and aunt. My mother wanted to learn to fly, but, when it came time to "pass" the physical, she was diagnosed as being legally blind, in her right eye ... So, she wasn't allowed to fly a plane, but, she flew every chance she got, when she was an adult. Then, about 3 years before he died ... He saw man walk on the Moon!!! All of this was done in just a few months, under 66 years!!! Totally, amazing ... When you really stop, to think about it. A few second flight to man walking on the Moon, within 66 years!!!


Posted by:

steve
26 Feb 2014

As we strive for and marvel at all of this technology, someday, when some future maniac gets enough starry eyed futurists around him to harness it all-we are going to be sorry. Subjugated, dominated and imprisoned by our childlike trust that "no one would do that to us". I fear for my child and my grandchildren.


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