Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Internet of Things: Primer

What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?
Well, for one, it is a technology that can enable your dinner plate to post to Facebook or Tweet to Twitter exactly what you are eating as all the hip foodies do nowadays. Or, the IoT might enable a robot to go to the office for you, while you stay at home in your PJ’s. Even today, the IoT enables your refrigerator to connect to the Internet and auto-magically order groceries for you when you run low.

Indeed, this refrigerated IoT capability prompted humorist Dave Barry to write, “I frankly wonder whether the appliance manufacturers, with all due respect, have been smoking crack … we don’t need a refrigerator that knows when it’s out of milk… we could use a refrigerator that refuses to let us open its door when it senses that we are about to consume our fourth Jell-O pudding pop in under two 2 hours."

And all of this begs some of the biggest questions facing an IoT-centric technological future: Where did the term come from? What is it? And, why should you care?

Let’s start with where the term “Internet of Things” came from. 

Way back in the pre-dot-com bubble days, a fellow by the name of Kevin Ashton, who worked at Procter & Gamble, created the term “The Internet of Things”. He used the phrase in a presentation entitled, in part, “…In The Real World, Things Matter More Than Ideas.” Beyond credit for being able to create a pithy headline, Kevin thought our economy, society, and our very survival are not based on ideas or information; rather they are based on things! He would remind you that you can’t eat digital bits and bytes, and you can’t bring them home to heat the house. Instead, you need things. He would agree that ideas and information are important; it’s just that things matter more.

Kevin recognized that the Internet, back in 1999, was coming into its own and that it was really a network of human ideas and information that was fed into computers by humans. What he longed for was an Internet of Things that could see, hear, and even sense the world for itself, and then take action without human input. Such an Internet of Things, as Kevin Ashton saw it, would transform every industry, even the very way we live, work, and play.

Now, if that’s how the term came to be, what is the IoT today?

First of all, the Internet of Things is no fantasy. It has already arrived on manufacturing floors, in energy grids, in healthcare facilities, in transportation systems and in everyday consumer lives, because all manner of things, from your Fitbit device to your hospital bracelet, to valves that automatically control the flow of fluids and power, are connecting to the network. When a thing can represent itself and communicate digitally, it can be remotely controlled and it can feedback data and provide new capabilities from anywhere it can connect.

So, yes, indeed, the Internet of Things is very real today.

Perhaps a few specific examples will better illustrate the “What is the IoT” question.

Seven or so years ago, a USA executive spent a fair amount of time in South Korea at a large manufacturer’s consumer electronics research and development facility. On one particular trip, he realized that the security access badge he was given was different than those issued on prior trips. When he asked about the difference, it was explained that these new security badges, like the badges employees wear, now contained a tiny little radio frequency identification (RFID) chip. He chuckled and said, “So, is someone monitoring my every move on a radar-like screen somewhere?” They were not sure why he had chuckled and went on to politely explain that the RFID chip in each badge allowed such tracking and that in fact, employees find it most helpful.

For instance, if an employee is seen spending lots of time in the restroom, an automatic e-mail inquiry is sent to see if they need to schedule a doctor’s visit. And if anyone is spending too much time talking to someone outside of their direct area of expertise, well, an e-mail goes out reminding them of the rules against inappropriate fraternization. The executive just shook his head and asked, “How do your people like the system?” At that point, a senior person stood up and said, “They like their paychecks just fine,” and with that he proceeded to exit the room. Ooops, the executive realized he had just made his first IoT faux pas.

Here’s another example: Many of you may remember the San Diego power outage and cascading failure that put the region in the dark a few years ago. Well, with the help of a Colorado State University research effort, a start-up by the name of Introspective Power, Inc. (www.introspectivepower.com) created a test that deployed sensors across the power grid (in a simulation) and then emulated what would happen in a glitch situation like the San Diego event. It turns out that with the right sensors, in the right places, and with real-time connectivity (all feasible elements of the IoT) their solution was able to act far faster than human monitors, detect the initial fault with sub-second diagnostic times and trigger machine-to-machine actions that isolated the issue and enabled the power grid to avoid a cascading failure. (See the Introspective Power case study athttp://tinyurl.com/kmbdkjy).

So, now the question remaining is, why should you care about IoT?

Perhaps a not-yet-implemented, though quite feasible example might make for a good visualization and explanation as to why the average consumer should care.
Imagine for a minute, if your company embraced the Internet of Things for everyday meeting management.  Your company ID card would signal your manager or human resources of your attendance and timely (or not) punctuality at meeting time.  As you speak at the meeting, it would query the IDs of all the others in the room and give you a soothing, happy heart beat spark when everyone is enthralled with your subject or a little jolt if the audience is adrift.  Of course, the company would no longer need someone to hold all attendees to the agenda as the ID card would just shock the speaker every time someone dove into the weeds. And every once in a while, the ID card would signal the company’s bank account to add a little something to your paycheck without a boss having to even think about it. Quite a difference versus today’s typical meeting process.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Internet of Things. Now you know where the term IoT came from, what it is today, and why you should care about it.

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