What is the Internet of Things?

Put simply, the Internet of Things (IoT) is a collection of sensors attached to objects – any kind of object – that will form an enormous data collection system. These sensors will connect to the outside world – usually the internet – wirelessly using Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) technology or a number of other radio technologies, or by SMS.

Already there are some 10 billion devices wirelessly connected, with research suggesting that by 2020 that number will be 30 billion devices. The range of objects that will have sensors is limited only by our imagination; obvious examples include computers, cars, mobile phones, clothes, fridges, food, fields, plants, planes and people. Other less obvious ones include meat cooking in ovens, balls used in sport to prevent their being lost, pets, lampposts and keys.

The technology was pioneered on the International Space Station where every object is given an IP address which is known to small spherical robots that follow the astronauts around as they conduct their work. This allows the astronaut to know instantly where to find objects that they may need and cuts down on the time lost trying to find tools for a task. The lists of things that they need can even be sent up to the astronauts from Earth.

The idea of an RFID-connected world was set out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the late 90s, though the term ‘Internet of Things’ is usually credited to an English researcher Kevin Ashton, who noted in June 2009 the limitations of a people-driven internet. ‘The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy – all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world,’ he wrote.

’Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more. Yet today’s information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know more about ideas than things. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things – using data they gathered without any help from us – we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost.

Yet today’s information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know more about ideas than things.

‘We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best. The Internet of Things has the potential to change the world, just as the Internet did. Maybe even more so.’

Indeed, the IoT can capture real-time data from anything from a Jumbo Jet – which, for a single journey across the Atlantic Ocean, can create 640 terabytes of data from its four engines – to a wind turbine or a chair. In each case the information collected will depend on what you want to measure and therefore which sensor you use and what you program the device to collect in the IoT. Even something as simple as a chair, for example, can provide a whole range of data: on its location, when someone last sat on it, who is sitting on it now, the material, its weight, age, wear, size… owners, history, designer, manufacturer, place of purchase, what clothes they are wearing. The list is endless: in deciding what is data, we create the IoT.

Each of these internet-enabled information-gathering objects could have a web page, even our clothes, and thus a virtual web identity that a huge range of other internet-enabled machines will be able to interrogate. This will raise the interesting question of whether we actually own our things and what rights to information ownership will confer. Though, as Ashton rightly points out, they are all machines that owe their role and their raison d’être to humanity, even if humanity may not be the only entity that has an interest in them.

Some may take issue with Ashton’s statement that things matter more than ideas. But what matters is Ashton’s idea of a world of information and what that means in reality. For the generation of such a mass of data and the manipulation of it by machines is already presenting a significant challenge to humanity.

Big Data

The key ‘product’ of the internet of things will be the data provided by billions of sensors and other sources. For the purposes of the current discussion, the most important aspect of this will be the gathering of what is called ‘big data‘. The technology research company Gartner has defined the term this way: ‘Big data is high volume, high velocity, and/or high variety information assets that require new forms of processing to enable enhanced decision-making, insight discovery and process optimization.’ As so often in the world of technology and technology writers, this description is weighed down with jargon.

In simple terms big data is the result of the ability of modern technology to gather and store lots of facts – data – quickly, efficiently and securely and then analyse it in a way that makes the world more efficient. Or that, at least, is the theory. Big data is said to have three main attributes – volume, velocity and variety – or the three ‘vs’. Some definitions now add a fourth ‘v’- ‘veracity’. A final factor could also be added and that is time, making the term ‘three ‘v’s and ‘t’’ or ‘four ‘v’s and ‘t’’.

Examples of big data include the 39.5 million tracking requests from customers of United Parcel Service per day, the 172,800,000 card transactions processed by VISA every day and the 500 million tweets sent a day. However, such mountains of data are meaningless without the ability and equipment to quickly extract meaning from them. Computer power, analytical software and, most importantly, human need all have to be deployed so humans can then create the algorithms necessary to extract the meaning from the data. If used properly this can yield some stunning results. For example, the US power company GE’s research into big data concluded that in aviation, a 1% reduction in fuel consumption could result in $30 billion in savings over 15 years. Meanwhile a 1% improvement in the efficiency of gas-fired power plants could produce $66 billion in fuel savings globally.

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.