​What is the Internet of Things? The tech revolution explained

Everything in your life, connected to the internet
​What is the internet of things?

The Internet of Things is one of the sillier phrases you'll hear, but behind this buzzword is an example of one of the most important revolutions in technology.

It's an all-encompassing term that refers to the internet changing from a giant network of PCs to a mega-network that's connected to everything around you. From your kitchen to your car and everything in between, the Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the world.

What actually is the internet?

To start looking at what's ahead, we need to understand what we have already.

The internet was essentially a bunch of computers (and phones and tablets) connected by addresses that let them communicate, as well as access the web through browsers. That's until the Things came along.

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IoT takes the emphasis off a computer used by a human to access information and instead puts it on devices without screens, which can be controlled by apps from anywhere in the world and take advantage of the huge amount of live information on the web.

What are the things of the internet?

Well, given that another name for IoT is the "Internet of Everything", the list is fairly exhaustive.

Recent months have seen an explosion in connected devices. Coffee machines, door locks, home security, in-car entertainment, ovens, fridges – you name it, it's getting connected.

And it's not just niche technology. Big names are getting involved, like Honeywell in the US and British Gas in the UK, who are connecting heating systems to the internet so you can control them from your phone.

What's the point?

Simply put, when the information of the internet is added to previously dumb objects, stuff gets useful. It's not just about turning your connected kettle on from the comfort of your bed – although that is awesome – it's about making life better without even trying.

What if your car sat-nav knew that there was traffic on your route to work? It may already – if so, that's the IoT at work. How about if your heating system could talk to your car, and knew that you were on the way home, so it could warm the house – to the temperature it's learned that you like? That's when things get interesting.

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Nest, owned by Google, is probably one of the most successful IoT companies at the moment. It has a connected smoke and CO alarm, a security camera and a smart thermostat that you can control from a mobile app wherever you are around the world. It learns how, when and why you turn your heating up and down in conjunction with the weather outside and then starts to do it all for you.

The Philips Hue is another household name when it comes to automation in home lighting. In fact, the home is a good place for many of the smart devices at the moment because there's already a very reliable and fast internet connection all around in the shape of Wi-Fi from our wireless routers.

So, we have bathroom scales from Fitbit and Withings that record our BMI and send it up to the cloud, we have door locks from August that allow us to grant access to friends and tradesmen remotely and we have plenty of more questionable ideas like Wi-Fi refrigerators which will one day be able to detect what you've got stored inside so that they can do the shopping for you.

What has the IoT got to do with wearables?

Well, everything. Smartwatches, fitness trackers, action cameras and most items we consider as wearables are all objects that can send the data they're recording about your daily life up to the cloud for processing. And there are plenty of them, such as smartglasses, that are looking to pull all sorts of relevant online information back down the other way.

These things may have started off as fairly dumb pedometers but with so many sensors on board and almost everything Wi-Fi-enabled, almost all wearables have become IoT objects in their own right.

Smartwatches (and fitness trackers too such as the Misfit Flash) can be set up to control your Nest thermostat, as well as Spotify playlists, smart locks, and smart lightbulbs, right from your wrist.

Is it a good idea for all the objects out there to be smart?

There are some big upsides. Automation of the world around us has been a fairly positive thing so far. Since the industrial revolution, our standard of living has got a whole lot better and, if we can get more of our possessions to pick up some of those monotonous daily tasks – especially in ways uniquely tailored to us – then that leaves us with more time to do the things we like. You know, like checking Facebook a bit more often.

We'll have more time, there'll be less wastage, which should mean spending less money, and with far better health and fitness systems in place, we'll lead longer, safer lives too. So: more leisure, more living, more money; sounds good.

And the downsides?

Well, more connected devices means more nodes for hackers to try to compromise. An internet-accessible pacemaker might be a good idea when you or your doctor need to make some adjustments to your cardiac rhythms, but it's not such a bonus if you're held to ransom at the threat of having it switched off by criminals.

That isn't a far flung idea. Already, a Houston couple have had their baby monitor hacked, thanks to a known exploit in the Foscam connected camera they were using.

The double-edged sword that is data also looms more ominously, as this growing army of smart devices records more of it than ever before. We'll wear them on our wrists, on our faces, under our skin and we will invite them by the dozen into our homes.

Yes, put to skilful use, your chunk of Big Data can be an immensely helpful thing. It can bring what you need from the world right to your doorstep without any of the information that you don't. But that does mean relying on all number of third parties to be responsible with your hard mined information.

Almost monthly there are reports of large scale database hacks and the current acceptability of our devices spying on us, so their makers can flog our data. This will probably need to change for us to be more than just commodities in the Internet of Things.

And there's more…

Not only is there a privacy issue in terms of our data but, if every move we make is watched, then that starts to have implications for our notion and feelings of freedom too, and that's rather key to the human experience. What's more, it might start to feel a little claustrophobic to have everything suggested to us thanks to our connected consumables. One might begin to lose the sensation of control over our own lives.

Lastly, there's the environment to think of. This Internet of Things is going to mean truck loads of microprocessors and they require all sorts of rare metals in their construction. Not only are we going to be blasting out great continental swathes to mine them, we'll also need to find a decent way of disposing of the Palladium in your Android-powered microwave too.

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1 Comment

  • AngelHealy says:

    "Double-edged sword" -- You're right about that, Dan. I think, that is the part that the innovators should spend more time nowadays, the security. It could possibly backfire in some aspects and put these data and the owners in a risky situation. We could take this age of IoT and Big Data as how Spiderman says it, "With great power, comes great responsibility." But it is definitely, a promising aspect of this era's technology.

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