Meet the Machines Behind the Internet of Things

Machines are not the android-style robots of science fiction. It is perhaps precisely because of their highly technical anonymous nature that there has been so little general discussion of their creeping impact on our lives.

Netopia - Meet the Machines Behind the IoT - SensorsSensors

The most basic form of computational organism. Like the tentacles of an undersea crustacean or sea-anemone, they are programmed to respond to the environment around them and particular stimuli. Modern sensors have now become so sophisticated that they can survive conditions totally hostile to biological mechanisms, can travel to planets and be subjected to incredible pressures, temperatures and stresses. Some are designed for use in space craft, others are so incredibly small that they are imperceptible to the human eye and have been dubbed ‘smart dust’. Sensors have now been developed that can exist at the nano-level, others that – while made of metal – are thinner than cling-film, as flexible as skin and yet virtually indestructible. The internet of things will in effect become a set of nerve endings for the web, which will be able to detect the presence of an object of interest by the movement of the web – and then home in on it [read more].


Netopia - Meet the Machines Behind the IoT - Control RobotsControl robots

Dr David Levy, author of Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-robot Relationships, views control-robots as the lowest form of machine life. They are machines built explicitly to execute one purpose, which utilise code that is designed to allow them only to perform that function. Control robots include a family of important control systems known as Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs). These are the most basic form of computational control. They sit immediately on top of sensor systems and are set to respond quickly and ‘authoritatively’ to the information that is sent to them. Limited in their computational power, PLCs are deliberately restricted fail-safe devices designed to operate in often extreme conditions to control things like nuclear reactors and carry out a restricted set of functions. This is because they are often deployed in critical services such as the utilities, water, gas, electricity, communications and other key areas of the infrastructure.


Netopia - Meet the Machines Behind the IoT - ComputersPersonal computers

These are now the grandfather clocks of the computer world. The PC has become the computational heirloom in the modern house.

Often unused – but often left on – the PC is still nonetheless a rich aggregated source of historical data on the modern family and shares with the domestic router the distinction of usually being the main route onto the web.

In the near-future home-based computers will be still used to provide an access and control point, a function that will increasingly be turned over to the cloud as remote ‘thin client’ tablet-based computing replaces the PC as the interface of choice with the web.


Netopia - Meet the Machines Behind the IoT - MobileMobile devices and avatars

It is in this area that the internet of things promises an explosion of connectivity from the ubiquitous mobile phone, to the car, satellite navigation, the home and lifts; an incredible number of mobile devices will be deployed in our lives. We will also become used to deploying our own sensors in mobile situations to monitor anything from potential rodent infestations to security and health applications, all of which will be connected to our mobile phones.

Some people will opt for household robots to help in those situations; others will prefer a more fluid internet and sensor-based approach. In the world of the internet of things sensors, as we have seen, will be everywhere even in our garden soil if we want them – to check on the nutrients in the ground and what fertilisers or chemicals must be added to help grow a certain kind of plant. And our main way of accessing the data from these sensors will be mobile devices [read more]


Netopia - Meet the Machines Behind the IoT - ServerServers

The central nervous systems of the new world order, data centre servers operate as the clearing house for all of this IoT-generated data as machines fire off messages at close to the speed of light. The servers currently operate separately, according to the needs of the companies that have deployed them in their data centres. But in the world’s largest data centre in Las Vegas, run by Switch, no such boundaries exist over the data according to Jason Mendenhall, the company’s head of cloud operations. Switch inherited a technology pioneered by the disgraced US energy company Enron that allows the large companies using the data centre to empty their data into a communal pool where it can be ‘interrogated’ to make use of the data patterns contained within it. Once the data has been made anonymous – stripped of names and addresses, for example – the patterns derived from it can be applied, says Mendenhall, to socio-economic groups, businesses and other situations [read more].


Netopia - Meet the Machines Behind the IoT - Mainframe computersMainframe computers

Like the PC, these are now ‘antiquated’, the steam engines of the modern computer world. They remain the repositories of massive amounts of information yet their current role has not been defined. Rumours of their imminent demise have circulated for more than 25 years.

It is thought by many that their final role is as the super-computer systems used by intelligence agencies and government computer centres where the data on them can be protected.

Plans exist for the consolidation of government data – in other words pooling it – along the same lines as those being developed in the Switch data centres as discussed under servers, above.


Netopia - Meet the Machines Behind the IoT - RobotsRobots

The popular machines of science-fiction, the idea of automated figures and self-operating machines dates back to the Ancient Chinese, Greeks and Egyptians. The modern notion of a human-like android that works for us owes its roots to the Czech playwright Carel Capek, who coined the word robot in his 1920 play R.U.R – Rossum’s Universal Robots. At the start of the 21st century the human-like robot has finally become near reality in Japan, where demographic changes mean that there will soon be five elderly people to each young adult. The Japanese Government has thus embarked on a programme of robotics to generate the carers that will be required to look after this elderly population. Japan has also developed all of the other software robot technology needed to support those more recognisable robots.


Netopia - Meet the Machines Behind the IoT - AlgorythmAlgorithms

The more junior of the software machines, algorithms are already used by businesses, governments and intelligence agencies to mine large amounts of data for information. While this may concern many, the use of such algorithms does not alarm Professor Murray Shanahan, an expert on cognitive robotics.

‘A lot of artificial intelligence technology is very passive – it does not have plans or intentions, it’s not sitting there doing anything sinister, it’s not thinking about doing anything but simply passively extracting data,’ he says. ‘It’s a use of AI technology that I would prefer to having hundreds of human operators sitting there listening to what was going on.’ This does, however, still raise the issue of who sets the parameters for the algorithms.


Netopia - Meet the Machines Behind the IoT - Software robotsSoftware robots/’bots’

There is an ongoing dispute about the difference between a software robot and an algorithm; some experts argue that the software robot is simply a more sophisticated version of an algorithm.

If an algorithm is a software machine created to search for specific information, a software robot or ‘bot’ – of which the computer viruses Flame or Stuxnet would be good examples – is created to carry out numerous tasks and to have a degree of autonomy. According to Professor Neil Barrett, author of ‘The State of the Cybernation’ and a former high level adviser to the UK Government, the UK Home Office and the EU, the next generation of software robots is expected to involve a degree of self-programming or decision making, based on the situations the robots will encounter via the internet.


This article is part of a series of articles published from the Netopia report Can We Make the Digital World Ethical? Exploring the Dark Side of the Internet of Things and Big Data, by Peter Warren, Michael Streeter and Jane Whyatt.