From smartphones to smart refrigerators, we live in an always-online society — one in which science fiction is slowly starting to become science fact.
Picture the scene: You’re driving home after a long day at the office. Traffic is a nightmare, so your self-driving car calls upon radar and GPS technology to automatically steer you toward the least-congested route. Pretty handy, right?
It doesn’t end there; sensors can trigger lighting and even music as you walk in the door, comfortably easing the transition from work to home. But this isn’t Amazon Echo on steroids, this is a glimpse into the not-so-distant future, when the Internet of Things transforms science fiction into science fact.
First and foremost, what exactly is the Internet of Things? Sometimes referred to as the Internet of Everything, Kevin Ashton originally coined the term back in ’99, when the former Procter & Gamble employee proposed a business plan that involved placing a smart label on each of the company’s lipstick products to track sales and inventory. Known as an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tag, the device would then notify staffers of sales performance and, crucially, when restocking was required all in the name of efficiency.
Web-enabled devices, data collection, and the subsequent feedback loop are all fundamental pillars that underpin the Internet of Things. In its purest form, Ashton’s concept streamlined the restocking process for the retail world, while the more advanced systems — your smart TVs, your smart refrigerators — can solve problems you didn't even know even existed.
Most of these smart devices aren’t in your homes in 2017; rather, they’re the digital lifeblood of large-scale factories, businesses, and healthcare organisations who call upon web-enabled objects to oversee complex machinery, boost efficiency and, in some cases, even save lives. If the smartphone wrote its name in the history books as the first modern-day gadget to be considered truly essential, other, more advanced gadgets will continue to permeate our everyday lives over the coming years.
Estimations are all over the place, with researchers claiming there will be anywhere between 50 and 212 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020. (Sources: Intel | FTC) That’s an awful lot of screen time.
However, it’s important to note that this umbrella term, the Internet of Things, covers all manner of technical trinkets ranging from tablets to smartphones, laptops to video game consoles, watches to specialised fitness trackers. It’s a dynamic, largely invisible world that’s constantly monitoring your behaviour — your buying habits, your favourite locations, even your diet — and uploading that data online. Anticipation is their bread and butter, and the algorithms can become so sophisticated (see: embedded sensors and other communicative hardware) that these devices can deduce what you want before you knew you wanted it.
Typically, engineers would construct the device in such a way that a smartphone — undoubtedly one of, if not the most commonplace pieces of tech on the planet — stands as the access point, allowing you to fine-tune household appliances or access the information that’s being collected and stored. We’ve seen this feedback loop in action through the likes of Google Home and Amazon Echo, and those virtual assistants are only going to get more sophisticated as time wears on.
But for all of the raw potential they promise, we’d be remiss not to mention the inherent security concerns that come hand-in-hand with the Internet of Things. From electronic banking to online shopping, many of us carry out monetary transactions almost on a daily basis, and the sheer volume of personal information that’s online can be a little frightening. Social networks and personal blogs are one thing, but when devices are able to relay our specific location, activities, dietary habits and video footage from within our home, data encryption becomes paramount. In order to stomp out issues before they arise, the onus is on manufacturers to subject any and all smart devices to rigorous testing, while the end user must ensure said appliance and its software are up-to-date to align with industry standards. That, and educating the Average Joe to be both responsible and careful when sharing data, will no doubt be of the utmost importance as the Internet of Things works its way into our homes.
But don’t let potential security flaws turn you off. Can smart devices be used to fulfil nefarious purposes? Of course! It’s inevitable, really, and the same can be said about all good things, technological or not. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to web-connected appliances. As society begins to adopt intelligent devices en masse, far-flung tech and concepts will become the everyday norm. It’s not strictly speaking apples to apples, but ten years ago the smartphone was labelled a luxury product — now, it’s practically ubiquitous. Now imagine what your home will look like in ten years’ time, when your nearest smart device — be it a interconnected light system in the home, the refrigerator, or your trusty automobile — is always one step ahead of you. And isn’t that exciting?