What is the Internet of Things?

RESEARCH

By
Alexander

October 25, 2017


This is the first part of a four part series on IoT. In this article, we will look at what IoT is and what it does. In coming articles, we will explore its history, where IoT is used today, and some of the problems that are holding it back from mainstream adoption.

From one non-techie for other non-techies

My name is Alex, and I work for a venture company builder that operates in the Internet of Things (IoT) sphere. When I started back in February 2016, I had a very vague understanding of what IoT was. I had read some articles about the billions of devices that apparently would be hitting the market in the coming decade, and how the Internet would be everywhere and in every device. I might have even had some experience with a connected environment after having visited my mad scientist dad in Sweden who usually puts up new Raspberry Pi’s around the house for extremely arbitrary reasons every weekend. But if you had asked me to define what IoT was you would have been met with a blank stare.

With this introduction, I want to offer some help to people like me - non-developers that maybe can throw together some HTML at gunpoint but still want to know more about IoT. You might work with it every day. You might have a project coming up for which you need some insight, or you might just have read about it in an article or seen a presentation and decided that you wanted to know more. Whatever the reason, this introduction is for you.

As the Internet of things is comprised of a complex, vast and diverse set of technologies, I won’t be able to cover everything in this introduction. But I will try to provide you with a good starting point from which you can continue to explore the topic in more detail, following up on areas of your personal interest.

What is the Internet of Things?

To answer that, let’s start by looking at what it isn’t. IoT is not a technology. In IoT, a lot of different technologies can be used and these will change depending on what you want to achieve. IoT is also not a platform.

So, what exactly is IoT then? Here we run into a problem. There are many, many different definitions. And they all vary. In very broad terms, it is safe to describe it as a concept that connects the digital world with the physical. However, I personally think that one of the early pioneers in this topic, Sanjay Sarma, comes closest when he says that IoT is a design language:

“It is a way for you to reformulate what we take for granted in the design of anything - whether it is a building, a car or a rental agency.”
- Sanjay Sarma

What does he mean by that? I would put it like this: IoT opens up a new dimension for us to explore. Using that extra dimension, we can redesign and create new products, services and businesses, where we merge the physical world with the digital. It is, in essence, a new way to build and interact with the world around us.

What does IoT do?

The things in the Internet of things

To grasp what IoT can do, you first have to understand one fact: We humans are good at many things, but sensing in exact measurements what goes on around us is not among those things. We can sense that it’s warm or cold outside, but ask us what the exact temperature is and we will most likely give the wrong answer. That’s why we invented technology that can measure what goes on around us.

I’m from Sweden, and when I woke up on a winter day and was about to leave the house for school, I always checked the barometer first before actually heading out. I had to, so that I could know if I would need three layers of warm clothes to shield myself from the sub-arctic cold, or four layers to combat the arctic cold. By using a barometer, I could obtain the data I needed (in this case the exact temperature) in order to make an informed decision.

But what does that have to do with IoT? The core functionality of any IoT-solution is sensing what goes on in the physical world. Each IoT solution incorporates sensors that can tell us how warm a car engine is, how full our dishwasher is, or how much coffee is left in the coffee pot. These are the “things” that we refer to in the “Internet of things”; without them we would not be talking about IoT, we’d just be talking about the regular Internet. In that light, we can say that IoT has, in essence, the same core functionality as a barometer.

The core functionality of any IoT solution is sensing what goes on around us

Networking

To explain the next part, let me use another example. I grew up in a coastal town that is famous for one thing: sailing. During summers, all the kids in town would sign up for sailing lessons. That’s just what you do. And of course, to sail you need wind. However, the wind can be quite fickle. Sometimes there’s too much, sometimes there’s not enough. So every morning when we had sailing class we had to get up at 6 in the morning and listen to the weather report on the radio. This report consisted of a person reading wind speeds and directions from 21 different observation spots all around Sweden. As a radio show, it is a strong contender for the most unsexy programme in the world. However, the weather information is essential for anyone that is going to spend time on the sea.

As most of those observation spots are located in isolated places without any inhabitants, that process is done automatically. What’s more important is that the data collected by those observation spots is also sent to Sweden’s National Metrology Institute automatically through a digital network, without a person having to go out and write down readings. Which leads us to the second core functionality of IoT – networking. As the Internet is by far our largest network, and the one that we use mainly in IoT, we say the “Internet of things”.

Like roads in the physical world, networking is the connective tissue that allows data to travel. If the network for a IoT solution stops working, the whole thing will come crashing down.

Intelligence

The final building block of IoT is intelligence. Sanjay Sarma, the MIT pioneer mentioned earlier in this text, touches on this when he says that “the I in IoT could just as well stand for Intelligence – the Intelligence of Things”.

We like to use the words smart and intelligent in IoT. We talk about “smart cars” or the “smart home”. What we mean with that is that we use computers to make decisions. Decisions can be very simple, such as deciding whether a car engine is overheating and informing you about that. Or they can be very advanced such as switching off the lights, lowering the indoor temperature, or switching of all devices automatically when you leave your home in the morning, saving you money on your energy bill.

Right now, most IoT products and services are closer to the first example, meaning that their intelligence is quite basic. They collect data and then notify you if there’s something you need to know. However, as IoT matures in the years to come, we will move further toward true intelligence, with things learning and adapting based on what goes on around them, which will enable them to make more and more smart decisions.

To understand the different levels of smartness and how we can keep on developing smarter solutions, let’s use another example:

You are driving your car on the highway in Death Valley, California and the temperature outside is 43ºC. Suddenly, a red warning light appears on your dashboard. It tells you that the engine is overheating. You decide to park and let the engine cool down.

Here we see a very basic form of the intelligence of things. A car manufacturer could just have put in a temperature reader in your car and let you decide for yourself whether your car engine is overheating. But most of us lack the knowledge necessary to decide whether it is or not. So manufacturers decided to put a computer in your car that would gather raw data on temperature from sensors placed in the engine, and use that data to decide if an engine is overheated or not.

Now, let’s take that system and make it even more intelligent: We decide to limit the maximum speed of the car to 30 km/h so that we minimize the risk of engine failure. If there’s a problem you can’t fix, we locate the car by using GPS, look for mechanics in your vicinity, and let you, the driver, know how to contact them. Furthermore, let’s say that you are part of our gold star program and are entitled to free service maintenance anywhere in the world. In that case, we can just notify our nearest affiliated mechanic automatically and they can dispatch a tow car without you having to contact them. We can even, relatively soon, start predicting engine failure before it happens so that you can put your car in for maintenance before your car engine ever starts to overheat.

In a similar way, we can take almost everything around us and figure out ways of making them more intelligent. Look around you and pick out an object. Now google that object together with “Internet of things”. Chances are, someone is working hard on adding intelligence to whatever you picked up.

In a near future, cars will be intelligent enough to predict engine failure before it happens

Conclusion

To sum up this article, let’s have a look at an image from a presentation by Kevin Ashton - another IoT pioneer.

IoT in a nutshell @ Kevin Ashton

This is, I find, a very good illustration of what IoT does and how it works in a very short and succinct way. For me, it also indicates the almost limitless potential of this new design language. Although we’re mostly talking about smart homes, intelligent cars and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) today, we are quickly moving towards a world where everything around us can make its own decisions. And that has the ability to revolutionize our lives and the world around us.

If you liked this article and want to know more about this topic, come back next week to learn more about the history of IoT.