The “Internet of Things” (or, as it is affectionately known by those who are convinced of its irreversibility, the “IoT”): What a charming term to describe a trend that could either signify a sinister, ubiquitous, paralyzing level of control of your life or the equally pervasive yet liberating revolution of how we live. It may not be quite as Kubrick-esque as the title may suggest, but it doesn’t hurt to quickly understand what different people understand it to mean.
Imagine a world in which every living thing – animal or plant – as well as every non-living thing, either has an electronic sensor embedded in it or is monitored by one. Then, imagine that the data generated by these sensors monitoring all these animate and inanimate subjects is being collected and transmitted every moment of your waking and sleeping life in an interminable stream of information! Now, imagine that all this data is analyzed and repackaged in real time and communicated to various other devices in this imaginary world for action.
Finally, imagine that this world is not imaginary at all but exists already: this is the Internet of Everything, or Internet of Things. There are an estimated 3.8 billion such devices in use as of today, and the volume is projected to grow to 25 billion by 2020 according to one account (50 billion says another and a third source says 75 billion). Even if we use a conservative estimate of half of the original total, this still represents 12.5 billion devices connected to existing infrastructure and exchanging information – your information – with each other incessantly. I’d say that this is worthy of your immediate, undivided attention!
So, unless you’re planning to spend the rest of your life collecting firewood, fishing for food and living in a shack, let’s brush up on how and where the IoT interferes with, intervenes in, impacts and improves your life (not to mention occasionally making a complete nuisance of itself).
Smart Home and Smart Buildings: Improved Productivity and Costs Saved
The last two decades – if not longer – have seen a fair bit of false starts of how each device in your home could exchange usage data with a central processor and also communicate with external resources. The cliché example of your refrigerator communicating with the grocer’s computer to advise it that your milk has gone sour and ordering a fresh carton – with payment being debited from your credit card or online account – remains an effective description of what IoT does.
In 2013, Google put up $3.2 billion to support a start-up company called NEST Thermostat, which boasts that it controls all energy consuming devices in your home – TV, stereo, computers, lights, washing machines, dishwashers – from your mobile phone and programs itself by “learning” your usage habits and saving you about 20% or more in costs. While a number of companies offer bespoke systems for individual smart homes, the viability of the sector is rooted in the fact that Apple has now entered the market; it should be noted that Apple doesn’t go anywhere if there isn’t money to be made. This should mean that several great smart home apps will be coming out in the next five years, followed closely by ones from Android, Microsoft and Google. The main point to take away here is that your smart home can essentially run itself without much input from you.
Also, if there’s a market for smart homes, there’s obviously an even bigger market for smart offices (which could have serious Orwellian potential). While a tracker on the uniform of a factory or constructor worker can set off an alarm and call for emergency and medical assistance if he/she has been stationary for too long, it can also let your boss know if you’ve been hanging around the water cooler all day!
Traffic Planning: The end of gridlock means less frustration on the road and carbon benefits
Your prayer for the boss to get held up in traffic while you scramble to finish your work assignment before his/her arrival may also go unanswered if the IoT has anything to say about it. Most traffic gridlocks is caused by people circling the block trying to find parking. If unmanned traffic drones could identify parking spots and relay them to your phone app (for a fee), or if the available bay could send you the information itself and let you book it (for a fee), wouldn’t it save you oodles of time? This would let you get to your desk in time, finish up the assignment, and greet your boss at the elevator!
The good thing is, it’s already here: you can benefit from these technologies to some extent, at least in the swankier parking plazas. In the near future, your boss’ car will be using the express lanes through the guidance of the car’s onboard GPS device to avoid traffic congestions – this means he may still get to work quicker than you anyhow.
Smart and Driverless Cars will change the way we drive: More time and fewer accidents on the roads
Imagine that while you’re using public transit, your boss’ vehicle is connected to the IoT. Currently, his Mercedes-Benz may be smart enough to interact with a smartphone to gather information about any appointments and follow efficient routes proposed by the onboard GPS. Soon, however, your boss may upgrade to a Tesla S, which can already interact with approaching charging stations if it’s getting low on energy; furthermore, with autopilot cameras, radar and 360ᵒ sonar, the car drives easily on both open highways and in congested urban traffic, in addition to possessing parallel parking capabilities which are better than ever. So don’t bother looking out of the window to see whether the boss is here because the IoT will make sure that he is.
There may well be 250 million such cars on the roads by 2020, with many of them capable of driving themselves, watching out for blind spots and avoiding pedestrians. By communicating with each other, these types of cars could potentially reduce head-on collisions by a staggering 85%; this would drastically decrease the estimated 1.3 million road-related deaths and 8 million traffic accidents each year that result in people ending up in ER. In addition, there would be economic benefits as well, such as the $1 trillion in fuel and lost productivity that would be saved when the onboard computers of cars cooperatively stack themselves much closer to each other than their human occupants can – currently, this results in 220 million tons of carbon-equivalent waste on the roads as cars idle in gridlock.
Health Care: Increased life expectancy
Now, if your boss constantly manages to beat you to work no matter how hard you try to be there before him, you will benefit from new health services that will treat stress, hypertension, anxiety, diabetes and various other “boss-induced” ailments of the 21st century. Sensors worn on your wrist (they’ve been on the market for a good five years now) will monitor your pulse, heart rate, oxygen level, state of activity and even stress levels. This information can easily be cross-checked against the safe baseline established by your family physician. If the safe levels are exceeded, then you, your doctor and your significant other can be alerted about an impending crisis, enabling you to take urgent measures to avert disaster. The system will also provide your location so that you can be found easily.
The IoT will also take care of elderly folks. If you’re a baby boomer in Canada, you’ll be joining the pensioners’ class soon; by 2035, 23% of the Canadian population will consist of retired boomers. Sensors can already monitor any medical crisis occurring with occupants in care homes, remind them to take medication, and even confirm details remotely with their caregivers.
This health revolution could also affect your everyday activities. Imagine that lights automatically turn on as you sneak to the fridge to eat a late-night snack of leftover cake so that you don’t fall. That said, the fridge would also “know” if the cake has been eaten, and will alert a nurse that a diabetic issue is imminent. Medtronic’s subcutaneous implant is already beginning to do that reliably, so go ahead and eat that cake if you dare!
Smart Grid: Save money, save the Earth and reduce emissions
However, all these devices in your home require power to operate. This obviously costs money, which should make you understandably concerned about your energy consumption. To make sure that grandma’s defibrillator is always ready and junior’s hockey uniform is cleaned, the power must always stay on. This means that the grid must maintain idle power capacity during lean hours so it can successfully continue to provide power at peak hours; this would require backup generators and backup fuel. However, power tariffs are not sensitive to demand, so peak consumption costs are the same as lean hour consumption. This consumer indifference places the grid under tremendous pressure.
So, what’s the solution? “Smart Grid” is poised to save the day, as well as your money. This is an IoT concept that prices power according to daily demand cycles and interacts with household devices to schedule activities efficiently. For example, such a system would manage thermostats so that the AC/heating doesn’t need to be on until an hour before you return home as well as ensuring that the washer and dryer don’t get turned on until after midnight when power is cheapest. Along with large batteries that can save power during the night, smart meters can actually “sell” surplus power back to the grid at the higher tariff period, which will further balance out the load. In Canada, this assumes that increased adoption of solar panels will account for a major portion of energy production and consumption, allowing the smart meter/smart grid pairing to create a binary power business between the grid and the household.
Power lines and pipelines are getting a high-tech upgrade, as well. Data collected by sensors in the lines can be analyzed, allowing you to detect and isolate maintenance problems. Furthermore, predictive software already on the market can anticipate which trees are most likely to fall and take down lines. In terms of pipelines, Cisco has been lining theirs with sensitive fibers that can sense leaks and radio for help right away if needed. For aging pipelines, GE has developed software that collates seismic data, topographical details, population density and hospital and school locations to help make maintenance decisions on an ongoing basis or during emergencies.
Smart Transportation: More with less = better ROI
We’ve covered several ways in which you will save time and money. This means you might actually be able to take a vacation. Again, this calls for the services of the IoT.
You will never lose luggage again (electronic tags) or land at the hotel to find out that it is overbooked (the IoT pre-warns you). Best of all, you’ll never have to perpetually wait for your train and plane connections. Sensors installed in tracks and in trains allow them to be scheduled far more efficiently than the legacy light-based systems. This is already happening on New York’s subway system on some lines, as 26 trains can be run in the same time that used to allow for only 15. This means less waiting time for you and a lower chance of missing your connection.
On the other hand, airlines – which have typically been one of the most evolved animals in the transportation jungle – have been trying to perfect their scheduling for decades, with some degree of success. GE has a tool which calculates fuel use during the flight and subtly adjusts the wing flaps to reduce drag. This allows planes to complete their journeys more precisely, not to mention saving the airlines a good 1% of their fuel bill spending. Beyond this, the IoT also has the potential to remotely commandeer the plane if there are any issues with the pilot. Finally, the IoT could also send the data that is being generated by the plane to alert the cabin and ground maintenance crew if there are any system faults or errors.
The Internet of Things is such an all-encompassing concept that a single blog post can’t speak fully to its potential. It has implications for business, manufacturing, agriculture, environment and crime prevention. However, it also has the potential to become intrusive to the extent that the state will know and influence your every action and thought. At the end of the day, it is a tool that can be used for either good or bad, depending on who controls it.
That said, if you’re still convinced that the IoT will lead to an Orwellian outcome – to the extent that you want to give up its potential benefits – then you’d better get started with building that cabin in the woods. As mentioned, this is the only way you’re getting away from the IoT. Of course, drones will still be able to watch you while you bathe in the stream nearby and beam these images to anyone who wants to know why you’re not on the Internet of Things.