Wired

The Internet of Things and the Connectivity of Modern Life

Once viewed as the stuff of science fiction movies, ‘connected’ consumer goods have become ubiquitous. Using ‘smart devices,’ homeowners can remotely program their coffee makers and barbecues, download directions in the car and automate chores such as watering the garden. Smart gadgets connect via an online network known as the Internet of Things (IoT) to relay data and receive commands.

“The Internet of Things is a system of interrelated devices connected to a network and/or to one another, exchanging data without necessarily requiring human-to-machine interaction. In other words, IoT is a collection of electronic devices that can share information among themselves,” explains a February 12, 2020 paper by the Congressional Research Service, which provides reports for members of the U.S. Congress. The actual term Internet of Things was coined in 1999 by a technologist named Kevin Ashton.

“IoT devices are often called ‘smart devices’ because they have sensors and can conduct complex data analytics… These smart home IoT devices can be connected to a single network and controlled remotely over the Internet via a mobile device or computer,” adds the paper.

“The IoT is a suite of technologies and applications that equip devices and locations to generate all kinds of information – and to connect those devices and locations for instant data analysis and, ideally ‘smart’ action. Conceptually, the IoT implies physical objects being able to utilize the Internet backbone to communicate data about their condition, position or other attributes,” detailed Surabhi Kejriwal and Saurabh Mahajan in a 2016 Deloitte University Press report titled Smart buildings: How IoT technology aims to add value for real estate companies.

A February 2018 Deloitte Insights article The Internet of Things: A technical primer outlined IoT use in three fields: enterprise/industrial, consumer, and services/public sector. For the industrial sector, some technology pundits prefer to use the term Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to describe online networks linking machines and computers in manufacturing settings.

IoT-linked products for consumers have gone far beyond robotic vacuum and floor cleaners and voice assistants such as Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri. Kitchens can now be stocked with smart refrigerators, for example, which, among their many features, may use sensors and image recognition to detect what is in the fridge and, via an app, alert the owner when supplies run low.

There are a wide variety of other smart appliances and household gadgets, like the ConnectSense Smart Outlet 2, a smart plug that powers coffee makers, lamps, televisions, and additional items while providing IoT connectivity. The smart plug can be operated with voice commands through various voice assistant devices and controlled from a mobile app.

Another household device is the SimCAM 1S, a home security camera that is capable of facial recognition and can let homeowners know in advance who is arriving at their domicile.

Barbecue enthusiasts can even buy Wi-Fi-enabled grills; the Traeger Ironwood 650 Pellet Grill, for example, can barbecue food by digital command.

There is an array of other smart home devices and appliances of varying degrees of usefulness. Smart lighting, for example, can be programmed to power on and off or change intensity or hue at prearranged times, while smart doors open only when you enter or leave. There are also smart windows that can automatically open and close shutters as needed and thermostats that can sense if the homeowner is approaching, automatically compare internal home temperature with outside weather then apply the most pleasing setting.

Even flower beds have gone smart. “You will be able to place IoT sensors in the garden. If these sensors detect dryness in the soil, they can trigger the irrigation system. Robotic lawnmowers can be automatically deployed if the grass exceeds a certain height,” states a June 10, 2020 article in IoT Now magazine.

When it comes to cars, GPS units – which rely on satellite data to track locations and offer directions – have been available for years, but these units have been joined by a slew of other smart automotive devices. Navigation tools can be integrated with apps that offer additional features. One such app, GasBuddy, collects user-submitted data to show drivers the fuel prices of nearby gas stations in real-time.

Autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles, which can ‘drive themselves’ or at least perform certain tasks without human assistance such as parallel parking are the next step in ‘smart’ automotive technology.

“Automakers have correctly noticed a growing trend and a significant business opportunity for connecting their cars to the Internet since there are projected to be around 14 million semi-or fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) on the roads in the U.S. by 2025,” states a March 10, 2020 article in Business Insider.

It is clear that IoT-based consumer goods are here to stay, and their use is forecast to grow, particularly with the advent of fifth-generation (5G) cellular networks. “The global IoT is expected to grow approximately 37 percent from 2017 to $1,567B by 2025,” states the Congressional Research Service report.

Widespread consumer connectivity comes at a price, however. Security and privacy are huge issues since these devices are connected to the internet. Imagine a computer virus infecting all your IoT-enabled smart car and home devices, and you get the idea. Cameras could transmit your comings and goings, providing fodder for stalkers or alerting thieves to when your home might be empty. Alarm systems could be remotely disabled, permitting access to strangers. And all of this can happen without your knowledge.

The problem is compounded by the fact that many smart consumer devices do not have the greatest encryption. “Depending on the function of various IoT devices, weak cybersecurity can lead to serious consequences, including physical damage or injury. Perhaps the most visceral example is the hacking of an automobile by a bad actor, which could lead to vehicular homicide,” writes EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center), a public interest research center in Washington D.C.

People who use IoT consumer devices need to be wary of more than just online viruses and trolls fooling with their heating vents. Smartphones and computers often contain personal banking, insurance, and credit card information that hackers are eager to access. If your phone and computer are connected to a huge array of smart devices, this broadens the number of entry-points hackers can work with to worm their way into your private digital data. Unfortunately, this scenario also holds true for computer-minded stalkers, voyeurs, and other creeps.

Even if your IoT network remains free of hackers, stalkers, and other bad players, all those online connections can provide corporations with copious amounts of personal data detailing your spending and credit habits.

For all that, it seems that consumers have decided that the benefits of smart devices outweigh the risks. Clearly, such tools can improve people’s quality of life, sometimes in unusual ways.

For example, Samsung subsidiary Harman recently unveiled three new connected ‘experience concepts’ or ExPs as the company calls them, for automobiles. These new networked features allow car users to record, edit, and share videos, remotely experience live concerts, and indulge in mobile games – hopefully, while their vehicle is parked. Harman exhibited these experience concepts at CES 2021 (the Consumer Electronics Show). The major global showcase of the latest and greatest in advanced technological gear, CES was held virtually this year due to COVID.

While such technology toys are intriguing, other smart automotive devices displayed at CES 2021 have the potential to save lives. These included an alarm from Italian company Filo designed to protect kids trapped in overheated cars. Left alone, strapped into children’s seats, kids have suffered injury or death when interior vehicle temperatures rise. Filo’s Tata Band system clips to a seatbelt and uses a sensor to detect the presence of a child in the vehicle. Data is relayed to the driver’s smartphone via Bluetooth. If the alert is ignored, emergency contacts are then notified. While not yet available for sale, the device has the potential to save lives.

June 20, 2021, 7:53 AM EDT