The Internet of Things: All You Need to Know

From a device that adjusts your room temperature automatically, to a smartphone in your pocket, the Internet of Things or IoT is almost everywhere.

You may or may not have heard of the Internet of Things, commonly abbreviated to IoT. But whether or not the name is familiar, almost everyone in urban zones has come across instances of IoT in day to day life.

An Amazon Echo or Google Home that switches on the lights in your living room, coffee machines that start brewing coffee on their own, bathroom heating that turns on automatically, a company production plant that communicates directly with the ordering and logistics system, and the smartphone you take with you everywhere – all these connected smart devices are part of IoT.

In the past couple of years, IoT has wormed its way deep into our lives and industries and is almost everywhere; changing the way we live and work. In 2020, total spending on IoT technology touched a whopping $742 billion according to the International Data Corporation.

What is the Internet of Things?

Simply put, IoT is an umbrella term that refers to physical objects or “things” that are connected to the Internet. Intelligent devices and machines connect to each other and the Internet using IoT technology, and the connected components can transmit data without human assistance. These devices can be anything from vehicles to toasters.

In fact, what is considered to be the first ever IoT device was a toaster, which software engineer John Romkey introduced at an exhibition in 1990. He demonstrated how to turn on the toaster using a computer, giving the world a glimpse of what an Internet-connected future may look like.

In 1999, British technology pioneer Kevin Ashton “very hastily” came up with the term “The Internet of Things” when he was tasked with making a PowerPoint presentation for work. He used the term to describe a system where the Internet is connected to objects through sensors such as the RFID tag (Radio-frequency identification – a technology where a device can read and store data from a tag without contact).

While IoT has evolved quickly ever since, with LG introducing its first connected refrigerator in 2000, the term started gaining momentum in 2011, when a Gartner report named it as one of the new emerging technologies. Today, IoT is part of everything from smart homes, to self-driving vehicles, to industries such as healthcare and agriculture, making it one of the most important technologies of the 21st century.

Applications of IoT

Imagine that every day, you wake up to your alarm clock and your coffee maker in the kitchen has already started making your morning brew. As you sip your coffee, Alexa will adjust your room temperature, while your bathroom water heater switches on in advance of your shower.

As you prepare to depart for office, your smart lock will automatically secure your house, and your car will let you know which routes are traffic-free and what time you’ll reach the office. Five years ago, this may have seemed like science fiction, but with connected devices and even smart plugs on the market, the possibilities are now endless.

While IoT makes homes smarter, it also plays a crucial role in business. IoT can help companies assess the workings of their systems in real-time, give vital insights, automate processes, reduce wastage, improve customer experience, and reduce labor costs, among other benefits.

The technology also has a wide range of applications in public sector organizations. For instance, it can help the healthcare sector by keeping track of health conditions, reducing medical errors, improving supply chain management, and reducing counterfeiting, all of which will improve efficiency and cut down on operational costs. According to a Gartner report, IoT spending by healthcare providers will reach nearly $52 billion in 2028, compared to $16 billion in 2018.

Similarly, it is predicted that about 70% of light-duty vehicles and trucks will be connected to the Internet by 2023.

Further, governments can also use IoT to monitor weather data, pollution levels, and climate change, among other applications. The technology can also influence urban planning to build smart cities complete with smart garbage cans and dumpsters that automatically alert waste management officials.

How does IoT work?

An IoT system is made up of several components. The devices and objects contain built-in sensors which collect data. Sensors can be anything depending on the functionality of the object – for instance, a camera inside a refrigerator.

In some cases, sensors can also be bundled together to gather multiple data points. Google’s Nest thermostat comes with a thermometer and a motion sensor, using which it can adjust the room temperature only when someone is in the room, saving on heating costs and energy.

The device will also have some kind of network – Bluetooth, cellular, Wi-Fi, or satellite – to understand this data and a processor to store and analyze the data either locally or on cloud. And for these connected devices to exist, they need to be part of an IoT platform.

An Internet of Things platform will connects devices to the cloud and enables the developers to manage applications and store, share, and analyze data. The platform will analyze data from different devices and pick out the most useful information.

This information can detect patterns and then trigger an action; for instance, a smart coffee machine automatically brewing coffee when you wake up or a Nest thermostat adjusting the room temperature when you’re not home. Some of the major IoT platform providers are Google, Amazon, and IBM.

Most of these devices work without human intervention. However, people can interact with the devices while setting up routine instructions, making manual adjustments, or accessing the data.

IoT security crisis

While IoT offers a slew of benefits, it also comes with all the security concerns of increased Internet connectivity. As more and more devices become ‘smart,’ there is higher potential for cyberattacks and for hackers to steal confidential information.

Reports suggest that global cybercrime costs are expected to reach US$10.5 trillion annually by 2025, compared to US$3 trillion in 2015. As IoT devices are closely connected to each other, all a hacker has to do is to tap into one device, and every other connected device will be rendered useless. This means that a hacker can even enter your home if they hack your smart lock.

There have been several instances where IoT devices were hacked to mine cryptocurrency. In 2016, a malware called Mirai created a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack by utilizing the vulnerabilities of IoT devices, leaving most of the Internet inaccessible on the U.S. East Coast. Researchers have also shown that smart water heaters can be hacked to cause a massive blackout in a city.

Along with security also comes the issue of privacy. A recent study found that 72 of the 81 IoT devices they surveyed had shared data with a third party.

“IoT devices have a pervasive impact on our lives, yet very little thought has been given to how to respond if those devices are misused,” said Lesley Carhart, principal threat hunter at the industrial-control security firm Dragos.

As more businesses realize the potential of IoT and more consumers adopt connected devices in their day to day lives, the key is for developers to take security seriously and come up with better ways to protect users’ data. For instance, the Swiss cryptography firm Teserakt introduced a cryptographic implant for IoT devices, which would encrypt the data that is transmitted from these devices.

The future of IoT

Clubbed with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, IoT can make the data collection process much easier. According to experts, the emerging 5G technology and IoT makes the most revolutionary technology in the world.

As per research, 35 billion IoT devices are expected to be installed across the globe by 2021, compared to 7 billion IoT devices in 2018. And the figure is expected to reach over 75 billion by 2025.

With the pandemic accelerating the adoption of technology in healthcare, the number of telehealth visits in the U.S. is slated to reach 1 billion. The trend will only grow higher in 2021, according to Forbes.

Similarly, in the coming year, IoT is also expected to make working from home more efficient, it will see increased applications in online retail stores and fully-automated supermarkets, and help build smarter cities.

Header image by Jason Villanueva on Pexels

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