The internet of things: The era of networked things

There is no generally accepted definition of the term 'internet of things' (shortened to IoT) yet. There are many different definitions, which differ greatly from one another. What most definitions have in common, however, is that they call the comprehensive online networking of everyday objects and industrial machines the 'internet of things'. Relevant devices receive a unique identity (address) on the network and can perform tasks automatically. This means, for example, that simple objects can communicate with each other around the clock and don’t have to depend on humans to control them. Sometimes equipped with only simple sensors and processors, and connected via network technology, they collect information about their environment, evaluate it, and pass data on to other networked things.

Consequently, the internet of things is by no means limited to complex high-tech household appliances or self-driving cars. There are many other uses: Internet-compatible clothing and fitness wristbands could monitor the user’s health and pass on the measured values directly to their doctor for evaluation, for example. In agriculture, moisture sensors could send information about the crops’ water and nutrient needs to a  cloud. As you can see, the application properties are extremely varied.

What is IoT?

The internet of things is closely linked to a number of technological developments and is strongly related to concepts such as ubiquitous computing and AI (Artificial Intelligence) An essential feature is that IoT can turn ordinary objects into devices. They are identifiable via an IP address, record states of things via sensors, and use chips as storage capacity. Built-in mini computers mean that they can control themselves, govern their environments, and exchange data automatically. Sometimes they learn via machine learning recognise patterns, generalise them, and draw conclusions to adapt to situations and continuously optimise themselves. Even simple radio technology such as RFID or Bluetooth is enough to convert physical objects into a transmitter-receiver system. Using more complex communication technology such as 4G, connected devices can transmit large amounts of data to a cloud or other IoT device over long distances without interference.

The internet of things can help itself to various technologies. Although there is no universal definition of the term, the following characteristics are commonly associated with IoT.

  • Collection, storage, and data processing (example: a thermostat automatically measures the room temperature)
  • Communication with each other (directly or via a cloud, for example)
  • Networking (e.g. via Bluetooth connection to the internet)
  • Ubiquity (networked devices are used almost everywhere)
  • Self-regulation (certain actions/scenarios trigger a reaction without having to be triggered manually e.g. an electric cooker goes into stand-by mode after the food has reached the desired temperature)
  • Learning ability (e.g. an internet-compatible lamp analyses the desired light intensity and adjusts it later on)

Which technology is behind the internet of things?

If you want to understand the principle behind the internet of things, you have to deal with its technological foundations. Both long-established and newer information and communication technologies theoretically make the internet of things possible. However, for a widespread network to become a reality, certain technologies would need to be further developed.

To fully connect devices, transfer, and evaluate data quickly and easily, and to solve the big data problem, you first need to overcome a few problems. IoT requires an extremely powerful mobile internet, which could cope with the immense volume of data that goes hand in hand with the extensive networking of machines and a wide variety of everyday devices.

For this reason, many developers are placing a lot of hope in the new 5G generation of mobile phones, which exceeds the old standards in terms of data rate per second many times over. This article explains what you can expect from the 5G generation. 5G isn’t expected to be released until 2020, but many companies have already started investing and preparing for the new system.

Simple means such as RFID and QR codes are sufficient to identify objects, collect information about physical statuses, and feed it into a network. This is already the case, for example, with the parcel tracking of logistics service providers and in inventory control

When it comes to automatically evaluating complex data and managing themselves, these things must have the appropriate hardware. This is implemented according to the M2M principle (machine to machine). M2M refers to a transmitter-receiver system for the automated exchange of information between two devices – it consists of different components and could look like this in the logistics industry for the remote device management:

  • Transmitter or end point – example: shelf picker with motion sensory transmits GPS signals
  • Transmission technology – wireless networks such as UMTS, HSPA, LTE, 5G
  • Receiver or data integration point – example: a logistics company’s server interprets the technical parameters of the machine (that is to be monitored) as an error message
  • Intermediate application – example: API (Application Programming Interface) supports networked receiver machine when it comes to evaluating data and triggering actions

The following elements belong to the technical architecture of the internet of things

  • Sensors: Everyday objects or devices equipped with sensors e.g. that detect physical or chemical conditions. They measure temperature, pressure, brightness, humidity, pH, or movement. For the measurement results to be used digitally, they are translated into electrical signals. This is how a smartphone’s brightness sensor measures the light intensity of its surroundings. With this information, the display can adapt to the level of light.
     
  • RFID (radio frequency identification): This technology enables contactless identification of an object using electromagnetic waves. For a reader to recognize and locate the object, it is given an RFID tag and a unique code. RFID systems have a range of up to 100 metres. One application example is the logistics industry, in which containers can be better located during shipment when using RFID.
     
  • Location technologies: GPS, WLAN, and Bluetooth cover even longer distances and transmit more information. This is how a smartphone can display the nearest location when searching for a restaurant, for example.
     
  • Wireless networks: A large-scale internet of things requires more than near-field communication and the short transmission paths that WLAN has to offer. The most important transmission technologies are based on mobile radio with the standards: 3G (UMTS), and 4G (LTE), but this isn’t instantaneous. For high data volumes and real-time transmission, a newer generation is required. In the future, the following standards are likely to promote networking:
     
    • 5G: The fifth generation of wireless communication standards represents a major leap forward: 5G manages 10,000 megabits per second. This makes it a hundred times faster than LTE. In terms of capacity, it outperforms LTE a thousand times over. Most applications can work in real time via 5G. For example, 5G is the prerequisite for self-driving cars in smart cities. In addition, even the large data packets of full HD films can be loaded quickly via 5G.
       
    • NarrowBand IoT (NB IoT): This radio technology is also an innovation. Although it transmits only small amounts of data, it has other advantages. Thanks to its high signal strength, it also reaches places that are difficult to access i.e. underground receivers or devices in facilities with thick walls. The technology works extremely energy-efficiently and over a long time. It could be used by municipal utilities to control heating systems in basements that are not supplied with electricity externally, or to control street lighting remotely.
       
  • Cloud: These virtual storage and data processing networks are also essential for the infrastructure of a large-scale Internet of things. The cloud enables, for example, the storage of networked objects to be outsourced or their storage capacity to be increased.
     
  • Embedded computing: Microprocessors and slim computer systems only work together with other devices. For this purpose, they do not require a lot of hardware and software and can be used for turning even small everyday objects into self-controlling systems.

What is the aim of IoT?

The internet of things could make all areas of our lives easier. The prospect of a more comfortable everyday life, a more efficient economy and administration, safer roads, a more environmentally friendly energy supply, and a healthier lifestyle is driving its development forward. Automatic coffee machines, industrial production that responds promptly to demand, self-driving vehicles, and fitness wristbands that detect illnesses and report them straightaway – the possibilities cover a wide variety of areas of life. Based on the data collected by the networked machines, many activities can be better planned. Especially in combination with AI systems, objects networked via IoT function more reliably and, above all, faster than humans.

In the medical sector, the internet of things could make it possible to collect patient data, make accurate diagnoses, and monitor their health around the clock – people wouldn’t even have to see a doctor in many cases.

Internet-compatible things, which constantly exchange information with each other and are capable of learning, can predict risks without human intervention. They can then intervene in a regulatory manner and optimise processes. Machines that can maintain themselves or plan real-time production processes in factories save time and money. Self-controlling heaters or sensors, which report the exact water and fertiliser requirements in agriculture, also ensure a more environmentally friendly and efficient use of resources.

With an expanding digital infrastructure, this could result in a sophisticated, wide-meshed system in the future that covers all sectors and areas of life and even regulates itself.

Fact

The internet of things is growing quickly. The market research firm Gartner estimates that there will be around 20.4 billion IoT devices by 2020.

Smart household appliances and cities: how does IoT change our everyday life?

The revolution of everyday life though the internet of things is yet to come. How IoT can change our lives has only been imagined so far. After all, not everyone already lives in a smart home or uses wearable technology. Innovations such as automated cash register systems, intelligent surveillance cameras, and self-controlling factories, on the other hand, are almost invisible in everyday life or operate in the background. A comprehensive internet of things would mean that we are constantly surrounded by computer systems that collect data and exchange information via the internet. If devices like these are used at home, they could interfere with our privacy.

A smart home can have numerous advantages for residents: Based on personal and activity-related data, it acts proactively and facilitates various everyday processes. Household appliances regulate themselves and do not need to be controlled. An oven that turns itself off or an automatically closing apartment door provide more security and peace of mind.

Many networked devices can also respond to behavioural patterns: A fitness wristband spurs the user on and encourages a healthy lifestyle by alerting them when it detects a lack of movement. However, human needs aren’t 100% predictable. What if this technology starts to dictate our lifestyle? For example, how will health insurances work out their tariffs in the future if they gain insight into a person’s personal fitness programme and it doesn’t meet their health policy standards? These questions are not only being asked by ethical experts. IT experts are also discussing potential downsides of the IoT and are considering a ‘Hippocratic Oath’ for software developers.

One thing is certain: the smart home devices already available are quite practical. An example of this is the adaptive radiator thermostat from Nest, a company acquired by Google. It memorises residents’ heating habits and automatically regulates the temperature. An integrated motion detector senses when residents are home and switches off the heating when they are absent. This saves heating costs, conserves energy resources, and makes life more comfortable. If the residents come home early, they can pre-heat the apartment before arriving.

IoT innovations that have already been tested in some cities give an idea of what is possible in the public sector in the foreseeable future. If these were to be used worldwide, the internet of things could make the transport sector, road traffic, waste collection, and many other things a lot more efficient. A complete infrastructure of networked street lamps, waste containers, traffic lights, and building façades could be created that use sensors to collect data.

In the Spanish city of Santander, the smart city is no longer a vision of the future. Thousands of sensors measure traffic in the narrow streets of the city centre. An app informs residents about the traffic situation and can even guide them to the nearest empty parking space. In Amsterdam, intelligent street lamps provide the right light intensity. If there are no pedestrians or cars nearby, they turn themselves off. This reduces light pollution and saves energy.

Basis for a fourth industrial revolution

What is IoT? What does ‘industry 4.0’ mean? Following the impact of the steam engine, conveyor belt, and digitalisation on the industrial sector, the internet of things is driving a fourth industrial revolution. Smart factories, whose facilities organise the entire production process themselves, are already heralding a new era. Factories like these speed up production, increase efficiency, and save costs. In a networked factory, for example, materials equipped with RFID chips report which machine is responsible for the next processing step. Using sensors, machines indicate when conditions are critical. To ensure that every process runs as smoothly as possible, they report when there’s need for materials and repairs.

Opportunities and risks of industry 4.0 and digital marketing

The internet of things is suitable for optimising all production phases of a product. It could also perfect all the services involved – from product development and marketing, to delivery and recycling. Self-learning machines connected to each other also enable better responses to individual customer requirements. To manufacture personalised products, human inspection or a system modification isn’t required every time. This already makes a difference, even for smaller quantities – Adidas produces personalised sports shoes this way.

The internet of things also has potential in the marketing sector. For example, retailers benefit from location-based targeting. So-called iBeacons send signals to smartphones that inform users about special offers or let direct buyers know about organic products available with links to relevant offers. Internet-compatible vending machines can report when a row is empty or the machine is damaged. If sensors can measure summer temperatures, the prices for beverages can be adjusted automatically when a higher demand is expected.

Another example are the smart bottles from whiskey manufacturer Johnnie Walker. These bottles communicate with the buyer’s mobile phone via NFC (Near Field Communication). Sensors attached to the label on the bottle collect information. This way, the company can track the supply chain and the whole customer journey. The sensors register whether the bottle is closed or has been opened. Depending on this information, the buyer receives product information or tips on how to enjoy the product via their mobile phone. This creates an additional buying incentive and improves the product experience. The networked objects are then capable of collecting and linking data throughout the product’s entire lifecycle. Taking obtained consumer data into account, they can transmit relevant advertising messages.

The economic potential of the internet of things is also huge. According to a study by McKinsey (a summary can be found here as a PDF), IoT could bring in $11.1 (£8) trillion by 2025.

However, industry 4.0 is also associated with a number of risks: Comprehensive networking offers hackers numerous points of attack and increases the risk of data breaches and industrial espionage. If production processes and maintenance are delegated to machines, this replaces humans as the labour force. This applies not only to monotonous and dangerous jobs, but also to jobs with which many people currently earn their living.

Experts are still divided on what areas and to what extent IoT will change the world of employment. On the one hand, digitalisation creates new jobs, and smart devices are more likely to be used as assistants to humans rather than take over their jobs. On the other hand, some economists expect that industry 4.0 will be accompanied by a comprehensive rationalisation of jobs. Economist Andrew McAfee, a researcher at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), estimates that by mid-century, approximately half of all currently-existing jobs will be cut. A similar conclusion was reached in a study conducted by Oxford University.

Benefits for the health care system

The internet of things will also revolutionise healthcare. Wearable technology measures important medical parameters – if heart rhythm or glycemic index readings are unusual, it sets off an alarm in heart patients or diabetics. This is one preventative way to use IoT. IoT also takes diagnostic procedures to a new level. Internet-compatible medical devices also improve inpatient and outpatient care.

Health prevention and diagnosis

Preventative IoT devices monitor body temperature, analyse the respiratory rate, analyze the chemical composition of sweat, and generate an ECG – theoretically possible around the clock. Wearable technology with sensors (i.e. wristbands and clothing, toothbrushes, or smartphones) that analyse saliva form the foundation of these permanent check-ups. Chronically ill patients can especially benefit from important body functions being regularly monitored. This can save lives in an emergency. If an anomaly is detected, but you know there’s nothing to worry about, unnecessary appointments with specialists or a trip to the A&E can be spared. Serious illnesses that slowly creep up on the patient can be detected early on, increasing the risk of successful treatment.

Fitness trackers measure the steps and calorie consumption of users and aim to prevent obesity and lack of exercise. Networked devices appeal to self-responsibility and promote a healthy lifestyle. This pays off in the long term, benefits the health system, and permits greater investments in medical research, for example.

Whether voluntarily at home or for research: Networked things expand the possibilities of collecting and evaluating medically-relevant data over a long time. If the data can be passed on anonymously by wearable technology and collected outside of the artificial laboratory, companies can obtain high-quality data through which reliable hypotheses on detecting diseases early on can be derived. In this respect, the internet of things also improves diagnostic procedures.

Medical devices equipped with artificial intelligence could also provide more precise results. Furthermore, they can check symptoms in seconds and filter through a variety of potential diseases, use the electronic health record to include a patient’s medical history and previous laboratory results, and compare them with statistically calculated patterns of patients of the same age and gender. All this can be done much faster than by humans – and with fewer mistakes.

Outpatient and inpatient treatment

A stay in a hospital isn’t necessary for every illness. The internet of things helps to adequately care for patients in an environment familiar to them and to monitor their condition from there. After all, most people feel most comfortable in their own four walls. Elderly people generally want to maintain their independence and are reluctant to move into a retirement home. Wearable technology that measures body signals could be used to monitor their health instead. There are also clothes available on the market that can make emergency calls. Another invention is carpets equipped with fall detectors, which call for help if they sense that someone has fallen and can’t get up. There are also medication dispensers connected to the network, which control tablet intake – another example of use in the health or care sector.

In clinics, the internet of things serves, above all, to optimise processes, and increase patient safety and hygiene. Networked medication dispensers prevent mix-ups and sensors report any contamination that might have occurred.

The dangers of IoT: lack of data protection and cyber attacks

The internet of things comes with both opportunities and risks. Many experts see the IoT primarily as a threat to privacy. In addition, there is still no clear concept for reliably protecting sensitive data against hackers and misuse.

Mass surveillance: a dystopia?

Networked household appliances, self-driving cars, and smart fitness wristbands continuously collect data in all areas of life. This is no longer just about data on surfing behaviour, but also information that has not yet been evaluated to a great extent by any other technology. In summary, they form an exact personality profile and can also provide information about the health status of the respective users.

This fact angers those fighting for data protection who try to warn others about the dangers of mass surveillance. Even if the data was made anonymous and couldn’t be assigned to specific users, conclusions could still be drawn about the habits and behaviors of certain population groups. Data protectionists fear a surveillance system on an Orwellian scale could occur if governments are able to access all this information. Human rights would be even more threatened than they are now.

On the other hand, lots of companies have an economic interest in collecting comprehensive data. Many companies such as Google, Amazon, and Apple already compete for market leadership in the field of IoT devices. With the help of personalised data, companies can provide customers with tailor-made offers and better adapt to their needs. However, using the data protection settings, consumers can only control which data an IoT device forwards to the manufacturer and its partner companies to a limited extent.

Legal regulations may prevent personal data from being extensively collected. However, especially when dealing with complex artificial intelligence, users are finding it increasingly difficult to understand and control how IT applications collect, store, and process data. It is therefore difficult to configure the data protection settings optimally. If consumers use several IoT devices simultaneously every day, they can quickly lose track of the situation. It’s hard to know which data is used by which provider and for which purpose.

For this reason, data protectionists warn that a person’s right to choose which information to reveal is in danger. A recent international study by the Global Privacy Enforcement Network revealed that 60% of internet of things devices don’t tell customers how their personal information is being used. GPEN looked at more than 300 devices during this study and now services that have been breaking data protection laws may have action taken against them.

How to protect yourself from cyberattacks

An even more serious situation is the fact that data protectors estimate that hardly any convincing security solutions have been developed so far. This makes the internet of things vulnerable to hacker attacks and data theft. This article explains the risks of the internet of things. With so many different devices connected to one another, it increases the security risk, as data can be leaked more easily. Cyber criminals can easily access sensitive data such as private photos, credit card numbers, and e-mail account passwords.

Due to extensive networking, many devices continuously exchange data. This makes the internet of things vulnerable in many areas and susceptible to manipulation. If a few objects are connected to each other, it is easier to hack several devices at once from a single interface. For example, hackers can use an electric oven (which starts to preheat automatically as soon as the occupant enters their smart home in the evening and passes through the automatically unlocking apartment door) to gain control of the door and alarm system. An IT company recently experimented and hacked a Samsung refrigerator, which meant they could access the passwords for the owner’s Google account.

However, hackers are not only able to access data, but are able to gain access to hacked devices connected to IoT and control them. This was confirmed by security researchers when they were investigating the networked Jeep Cherokee from Fiat Chrysler: After seizing the car using an interface, they were able to control the brakes and steering wheel from a distance.

Some security experts warn that, in a fully networked world, factories, water utilities, and nuclear power plants are not 100% safe from this kind of manipulation. However, these are the worst-case scenarios that focus solely on the potential dangers of the internet of things. The good news is that the voices calling for more security and increased data protection are getting louder – and they are certainly being considered by developers. For example, work is already underway on a router app able to control the action of networked household appliances and prevent unnatural data traffic.

System vulnerabilities

Not only targeted cyberattacks are a danger for IoT devices, but also programming errors. Critics of the internet of things point to the risk of users relying too much on a seemingly flawless technology that controls itself. What if a bug causes a device in a networked doctor’s office to overlook something important during diagnosis and then results in the wrong medication being prescribed? In addition, smart cities require a complex infrastructure with thousands of sensors. To prevent errors in the system, it would have to be regularly maintained and checked by humans.

IoT and network neutrality

How does IoT change digital society? Discussions on this topic also cover the topic of net neutrality. This is due to the internet of things’ underlying technology. The future mobile radio standard 5G is planning for so-called network slicing. This divides the mobile internet into virtual network segments, each of which is dedicated to different applications and transfers data at different speeds. This results in a flexible 5G network that, for example, treats voice applications differently to video streaming and does not process them at the same time.

Supporters of network slicing emphasise that this is necessary to cope with the high volume of data and ensure real-time transmission. If all data packages were treated equally, applications that generate large amounts of data and require a real-time response would not work properly. A self-driving car that has to brake quickly must therefore have a higher priority than a shopping reminder.

Critics of network slicing recognise this as an attack on network neutrality. The internet, as we know it up to now, would no longer exist, as certain things would be given preference. In addition, it would be conceivable for companies to associate prioritisation with higher costs. Those opposed to network slicing fear that this restricts consumers. In addition, it could also jeopardize free competition in the digital economy, for example, by giving preference to companies that are doing ok for themselves, which could mean that startups suffer.

However, if developers had taken into account the warning voices when setting up the internet of things, the positive effects of this new technology on everyday life could be immense.