Despite its somewhat whimsical name, the Internet of Things (often abbreviated IoT) is a complex topic of global significance. Its impact will be felt not only economically, in the form of new products and services, but socially, as the new generation of Internet-connected devices changes the way we live.
So what is the Internet of Things? It’s the generally agreed-upon term for devices that connect to the Internet in one way or another, usually for a limited purpose. For example, one of the most common IoT devices is a “smart thermostat.” A smart thermostat is one that you can control remotely, via an app on your phone for example, so that you can monitor and alter your home’s temperature from afar (in the context of internet devices, “smart” is just another way of saying “connected to the internet”). “Smart home” hub devices like Alexa are also becoming increasingly popular.
Believe it or not, research firm Gartner estimates that around 8.4 billion(!) such “smart” devices were in use in 2017 (this includes smart TVs), up 31% from 2016, and that this number will reach approximately 20.4 billion by 2020. With this kind of incredible growth, it’s no surprise that the Internet of Things is a topic of great interest to the business sector.
Healthcare, agriculture, and manufacturing are 3 of the fields expected to benefit most from the potential of IoT, but security and energy companies are also expected to invest heavily in IoT infrastructures, as remote-access cameras and the aforementioned smart thermostats become more widely available. Cities and municipalities, too, will benefit from the power of the IoT to seamlessly integrate data to facilitate management of traffic flow, environmental issues, and safety concerns.
There are a variety of factors, a “perfect storm” if you will, which has allowed for this proliferation of Internet-connected “Things.” Widespread availability of wireless networks, cheaper processors, and the arrival of IPv6, which dramatically increased the number of IP numbers available for use, were all essential prerequisites for the opportunities for simple household items to be connected to the world at large via the Internet.
The world, too, has become more connected. In 1995, less than 1% of the world’s population had internet access. As of January 2018, that number was 55% and growing. Bandwidth, too, is ever increasing, with some forward-thinking internet service providers already offering 1 Gbps download speeds as a standard internet service. So as the ability of “Things” to be connected to the internet has increased, so too has the ability of people to be connected to those Things from the other side.
One of the foremost concerns with all of this convenient internet access is security. Bringing the internet closer to the world also brings it closer to malevolent forces who would use it for their own benefit. One can easily imagine a hacker gaining access to a device remotely and using it to cause harm (for example, turning off industrial-scale smart refrigerators or other electronic devices), to say nothing of self-replicating viruses that could spread from one device to another. Privacy, too, is wrapped up in the IoT, as cameras, remote monitoring, and smart homes become more and more prevalent. Despite these challenges, the predicted success of the future IoT economy is easy to envision.
With once fantastical-sounding inventions like driverless cars on the foreseeable horizon, the potential applications of the Internet of Things are virtually limitless. Past technological developments have led us to a present time where smart homes are becoming a reality. With smart cities expected to appear by 2025, can a fully connected planet be far behind?