The ‘Real’ Internet of Things

(This post is derived from a talk given at the 2012 Wrexham Science Festival.)

There are so many different ways of describing the Internet of Things.  On the one hand, maybe it’s what the original Internet was always destined to be; on the other, it’s about as boring as it gets.  Tag just about anything and everything we can stick a label on, let them talk to each other, then turn the existing  Internet into a massive database of things that can be referenced, interconnected and used any which way we like.  Great if you really need your fridge to reorder the milk for you or the plants to water themselves but hardly inspirational.  Two features, however, give the proposed (and not yet fully considered) IoT a serious ‘Oooh!’ factor …

Firstly, the ever-increasing intelligence of the Internet will allow us to manipulate this data in new and exciting ways.  More and more, the evolving Semantic Web will be able to understand the information it’s working with and make the best use of it for our benefit.  Our personal and working lives are about to become completely automated and made easier by web intelligence.  Secondly, and potentially on the darker side, other hardware and software developments will extend the IoT’s reach.  Face-recognition, image-scanners and numerous other advanced detectors and sensors will soon mean that everything can be read, whether it’s deliberately labelled or not.  We, and everything we use or own, may soon become part of the Real Internet of Things (RIoT) and we might have to expect to be identified and traced in everything we do.  So what will the future will look like?  Are we heading for paradise or Big Brother?

In 1999, Kevin Aston, argued that,  “Today computers—and, therefore, the Internet—are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information. Nearly all of the roughly 50 petabytes … of data available on the Internet were first captured and created by human beings—by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a bar code. Conventional diagrams of the Internet … leave out the most numerous and important routers of all – people. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. And that’s a big deal. We’re physical, and so is our environment … You can’t eat bits, burn them to stay warm or put them in your gas tank. Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more. Yet today’s information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know more about ideas than things. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best. The Internet of Things has the potential to change the world, just as the Internet did. Maybe even more so.”

And, in simple terms, that’s pretty much what we’ve been trying to do ever since; not just trying – on the whole, succeeding.  The first job was to label the things we wanted to network together.  That wasn’t difficult: Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags are now robust and cheap (not quite cheap enough yet to put on individual tins of beans but getting there) and there are other variant technologies that perform similarly.  Soon there will be billions of devices devices connected to the Internet, not just computers, laptops and mobiles but everyday items that don’t need us as the go-betweens to get on with their job.  The age of Machine to Machine (M2M) communications is here.

IoT

Let’s take a simple example; made-up but typical of the IoT ‘brochure’:  You’re driving to a meeting, but running late.  Never mind, you’re connected; everyone knows, no-one’s waiting.  As you approach, the central system automatically: identifies an empty parking space and sends directions to your sat-nav (taking into account car size, physical ability, etc.); finds an available meeting room and sends directions to your phone, knows the requirements for seating, computers, projectors, etc.; tells all your colleagues you’ve arrived and directs them to meet you and tells you how long they’ll be; orders refreshments to be sent to the room (taking into account individual likes/dislikes).  Everyone’s happy … well, apart from the guys whose jobs this used to be of course.

There’s no sci-fi here.  What’s needed to make this happen?  Tags, sensors or some other sort of automatic identification. Got that.  A fast network to connect it all together and somewhere to store the data. Got that.  Some clever programs to do clever things with the data. Got that.  So, what’s stopping us? Nothing.  It’s just a question of making a few key components a bit smaller and cheaper, writing some more programs and connecting it all together; and this is happening … now.

The CeNSE and Smarter Planet projects are an indication of just how ambitious some IoT plans are.  For a slightly more homely take, have a look at the EASYLINE project.  Small-scale projects like this have been around for a while and RFID and the like is well-established in libraries, warehouses, stock-control, distribution, etc. and is beginning to find a role in security, luggage-handling, etc. … and of course, money.

For many people, ‘intelligent’ money has been both the first clear sight of the new systems in action and a hint that there might be a downside to all of this.  Touchless payments seem like a great idea until you realise, of course, that exactly the same technologies that can be used to take a payment can be used to suck your personal data from your wallet as someone walks by.  Almost as soon as the opportunities arrive, so do the threats, followed by the protection, further problems, solutions, and so on.  It’ll always be a cat-and-mouse game in the race between using technology for good and bad.  Throw into the mix the old maxim that what’s freedom to one person is piracy to another or that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and it’s never going to be simple.

There are a few definites though; possibly foremost amongst what’s definitely being overlooked is the fact that you don’t have to tag things to watch them.  There seems to be a widespread, implicit assumption that ‘joining in’ with the IoT will be voluntary.  ‘Yes, by all means, put a tag on that (me); be my guest!’  (We’re already doing this really of course by carrying a mobile phone around; we’re already sacrificing our privacy for the ‘pay-off’ that technology delivers.)  But tags aren’t the only way of identifying ‘things’.  ‘Things’ can recognised by their own characteristics.  Once ‘things’ are known in the system, they can be tracked.

There are numerous ways in which we and what we have can be drawn into the IoT.  Our cars can be tracked by their registration plates (in addition to things we fill them with); serial numbers can be scanned; fingerprints, DNA, even breath, etc. can be detected as unique identifiers; effective face-recognition may be in its infancy but it’s on its way.  The day may come that stepping outside your door integrates you into a global awareness, from which you just can’t hide.  (Staying at home probably won’t help much either.)  This is the ‘Real Internet of Things’ (RIoT).  It’s a whole new world, and not just in a technical sense; it’s going to affect how we behave.  All kinds of new social questions arise.  How do you behave when you really can’t hide?  When our faces can be accurately and automatically recognised, for example, will we take to wearing masks or will that become illegal as a presumed sign of bad intent?

On the whole, what’s being done with these technologies at the moment is both limited and legal, but is that likely to be the way it stays?  Probably no on both counts.  Certainly we’re heading for a global system here and it’s unlikely that legislation will do much for us in the long run.  Our laws always lag badly behind the technology the lawmakers don’t understand.  They can try but they’ll always be playing catch-up.  More importantly, there will always be loopholes and simple mistakes.  Once your data’s out there, it’s out there; once you’re in, you’re in; there’s no going back.  The wrongdoers might get punished but that’s too late; you can’t undo things with the Internet, even less so with the IoT.

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If you’re in much doubt about this (and if you honestly haven’t done this already), try an Internet search on your own name.  How many people and webpages hold information about you?  Where did that come from?  How much of that did you authorise?  How much are you not sure about?  (Maybe I checked a box on Facebook that said they could … ?)  How much of it’s accurate?  What can you do about it?  Can you be bothered to try?

It’s all so easy to ‘mine’ data nowadays, often quite accurately, but it’s so easy for it to be wrong too.  But once it’s out there, it’s out there; you might consider it private or inaccurate but it’s unlikely that legislation will protect you.  You might be able to force it down on one page – even punish the perpetrators – but it will appear somewhere else.  Face it, we’re all going to become minor celebrities; if anyone’s interested enough to find out about us, they’ll be able to.  Now combine this global knowledge of you with the RIoT’s ability to track your every movement and … well, things are going to be very different.

One thing’s absolutely beyond doubt: the Internet of Things will be used and abused, in about equal measure, in exactly the same way the original Internet has been.  That’s something we’ll just have to live with on one level or another.  Legislation may help to some extent but it’s likely to be more effective in punishing the guilty than really protecting the innocent, if it even manages that.  We’re probably just going to have to get used to living in a world with much less personal privacy; that’s the stark reality.  Where that takes us is anyone’s guess.  Will we come to treasure our personal freedom or abandon it?  Will it herald a new age of enforced morality?  (Whose morality?)  Will it reduce or increase the social or technological divide?  Will it unite us or split society further, or across an entirely new fault-line that’s lain hidden until now?  Or will we just adapt once more as we’ve always managed so far?

Douglas Adams once noted that,  “Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Some people worry a lot about the future, often focusing on accelerating technology.  However, the threats to our comfort, security and liberty from projected advances in machine intelligence, particularly the so-called singularity, are probably far less real than those posed by the sheer scale, power, connectedness, completeness … and certainty of the (Real) Internet of Things.  But it won’t be the technology itself that’s the problem, of course; the technology won’t abuse our privacy or steal our identities.  As always, it’s more than likely that it’s people, not machines, we should be worried about.

About Vic Grout

Professor of Computing Futures at Wrexham Glyndwr University, Wales, UK. View all posts by Vic Grout

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