Everything we own, wear or use will soon be connected to everything else. So how do we harness the huge potential of the internet of things?
The first device we could argue was “IoT enabled” was invented in 1980, when students at Carnegie Mellon university in Pittsburgh connected a vending machine to the university’s network so they’d know when it had run out of Coca-Cola. The Pittsburgh Coke machine might have been the first illustration of the potential of machines that could talk to each other, but there’s far more to the IoT than fridges telling us they’ve run out of milk.
Forty years on, it’s estimated that there are now around 30 billion devices that are connected to the internet and to each other – and they can do much more than save a pointless trip for a cold beverage. Intelligent lightbulbs can be turned on or dimmed from a smartphone. Smart watches, fitbits and other wearable devices can monitor our health, or let us call or text people. Connected cars can gather information on driving habits that can result in more accurate (and hopefully lower!) insurance premiums. Smart fuel meters can automatically communicate with energy companies, saving us from tedious manual readings. Jet engines are fitted with thousands of sensors that constantly monitor their performance.
Nevertheless, the rapid growth and huge success of IoT technology brings with it concerns about privacy and security. In a constantly monitored world where everything is filled with tiny sensors, how do we make sure that the information these devices produce isn’t at the mercy of darker interests that feed an unhealthy surveillance culture. The legal framework that governs IoT has yet to keep up with the rapid pace of development, and the endless valuable data and remote functionality of IoT devices is open to abuse. There is huge potential in the IoT, but it’s up to the industry itself, and government institutions worldwide, to ensure that potential remains a positive one.