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But what IS the Internet of Things?

3 years ago

Stuart Houghton writer
Stuart Houghton Freelance writer and IT nerd London, UK
Imagine if everything you owned could talk to each other. What if your work bag reminded you to pack your umbrella because the TV told it that there was a chance of rain? What if you never ran out of eggs and milk again because your fridge could order top-up deliveries when you were running low?
These are all ideas that could become reality thanks to the Internet of Things. The IoT is an idea that describes a future where everyday objects are connected to one another via the internet or can somehow communicate data about their current state with other systems. This idea of embedding computers or computer-readable identifiers in objects is sometimes known as Ubiquitous Computing.
At its most basic, this means making things identifiable to computers using smart tags like the RFID (radio frequency identification) circuits you find stuck in library books. These hold a tiny amount of data that identifies the book (when passed near a suitable wireless reader) and can be used for automated stock control. 
More complex systems might embed a tiny computer and sensors that could detect the location or position of an object or perform some calculations based on things it can detect in the immediate area and act on it by, say, sounding an alarm or contacting another system (or even a human).
The growing trend for 'quantified self' health gadgets like the Fitbit are also an example of this kind of technology and as things become more sophisticated you may be able to have wearable devices that monitor your health more closely and could even aid diagnosis.
This overarching idea - described by Business Week back in 1999 as 'planet earth [donning] an electronic skin' - might seem like science fiction, but there are already concrete examples available now and it is likely to be a significant part of the world our children will grow up in.
Some real products that typify the IoT way of thinking include:
Nest - a home automation product that controls your heating through a combination of temperature, humidity and activity sensors. It can tell if a building is occupied and learn how best to heat your home in the most efficient way possible.
Lively - a system for monitoring an elderly or infirm relative via sensors that check if they are eating properly and taking their medication and look for unusual patterns of activity that might indicate they are in distress.
BigBelly - a 'smart bin' that local councils or campus managers can install that monitors its own usage and 'calls out' to the waste disposal department when it needs to be emptied. The data it collects can help make waste collection more efficient and save money.
It's not all rosy, however. One consequence of the IoT is a huge amount of data that will be collected or created and much of that data will relate to individuals - where they go, what they do, their likes and dislikes and even their health. It is likely that some IoT products are going to be designed with this in mind - offering cheap or free services that pay for themselves by harvesting vast quantities of data that may be of use to advertisers, insurers and other, possibly shadier, types.
This is likely to end up being a societal problem as much as a technical one We need to decide just how much of our personal data we want to share and under what conditions and in the coming years this may become even more important than it is already. If are worried about the government - or even just Google - knowing what you get up to on the internet, imagine what it will be like when they know what temperature you like to run your bath and when you are likely to take it.

Tell us if the Internet of Things excites or terrifies you in the comments below!
 (pic: Nest)
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