Wireless and computer industry forecasters are predicting there will be 50 billion devices (things) connected to the Internet by 2020. This is more than seven devices for every person on the planet. The numbers seem astonishing, but maybe they are a bit more conservative than one may expect. Currently there are around seven billion mobile phone subscribers world-wide and more than three and one-half billion Internet domains in use. In addition to mobile phones, the connections will include PCs, tablets, fixed and mobile telemetry, various sensors and actuators, automobiles, consumer items, security cameras, embedded devices, etc. This list is almost limitless, and there are already millions of these devices in use today. All of these connected devices make up what is called the Internet of Things (IoT). Many believe the IoT is the next big evolutionary step of the “information age.”
A Working Definition
The IoT can be defined as a flexible end-to-end system consisting of any type of embedded physical electrical “thing” that has a connection to the Internet. Each “thing” has its own unique ID and interacts with other devices on the Internet. The functional capabilities of these “things” boil down to event-driven devices that are remotely sensing something, actuating something and capturing information. The device applications will depend upon the problem to be solved. The communications links can be one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many. In addition, it can be person to person, person to device, device to device (D2D) and machine to machine (M2M). When thinking about these connections, think in terms of “massive numbers of links.” This is especially true when thinking about M2M communications. These developments will result in increasingly complex HetNet integration, massive connectivity requirements, huge capacity requirements, and very “BIG” data management.
Its Origin and Future
The IoT is evolving from the advances and convergence of technologies including wireless communications, the Internet, embedded systems and very small micro-electronic systems. It is not difficult to imagine how these developments are evolving into the so called “smart grid” of the future.
The current 3G and 4G wireless networks are not capable of managing these capacity loads, but the coming 5th Generation (5G) wireless networks will. 5G specifications will not be available for a couple of years, but we will address some of the speculations about 5G requirements in our next article.
What Kinds of Things?
The concept of a “flexible end-to-end system of embedded things” is a rather abstract definition and it can be a little difficult to imagine their applications. One approach to make this concept more tangible has been to break down the “things” into user cases. One such schema categorizes “things” into personal devices, wearable devices, sensor devices, and connected machines. Another breakdown is wearable devices, smart homes, smart cities, smart environments and smart devices. I am sure you can identify many examples for each of these categories. When you think about these developments, it is not hard to imagine a plethora of devices around you in the near future. In fact, some forecasters believe that within the next ten years the average person in a modern city could be sensed and/or connected to up to five thousand tracking sensors.
What are the Benefits?
As mentioned earlier the applications depend upon the problems to be solved. Benefits will accrue directly and indirectly from applications designed to monitor the environment, manage energy, improve manufacturing efficiencies, monitor critical healthcare patients, increase surveillance and security and improve targeted marketing techniques. This list can go on and on.
Is There a Dark Side?
The dark side of IoT will be ever present, too. It will simply depend upon the purpose and applications employed. There could be a considerable loss of personal privacy and anonymity. Large commercial ventures could easily abuse an individual citizen’s right of privacy or his right of consent. Equally, governments could abuse collected information for policing or political purposes. The IoT has the capability to turn the Constitution upside-down by increasing the opaqueness of large corporations and government agencies while increasing the transparency of the individual. Some argue this is opposite of the founding fathers’ intent regarding individual privacy and governmental transparency.
We live in a nation where it appears that many levels of governments are becoming increasingly secretive, inflexible, dysfunctional and disconnected from the populace. An appropriate question to ask may be, “How do we maintain and defend the opacity of individual privacy while increasing governmental transparency in the next stage of the information age?”