What the $#@! Is the Internet of Things?!
Yup, the robots really are taking over. But while it’s easy to make light of interconnected kitchen appliances, the IoT also has the potential to do some real good.
"The machines rose from the ashes of the nuclear fire. Their war to exterminate mankind had raged for decades, but the final battle would not be fought in the future. It would be fought here, in our present. Tonight..."
These lines, scrolling on the screen during the beginning of the classic science fiction film "The Terminator," inform us that the machines (computers and the cybernetic organisms they created) have vanquished humanity. The slaves are now the masters.
It’s hard not to think of machines-versus-man movies like "The Terminator" and "The Matrix" when you hear the term the Internet of Things (IoT). Should we be scared that the interconnected appliances in our homes will run amok? What if the washing machine has a beef with the dryer - will the clothes still get clean?
Techopedia defines the IoT as "a computing concept that describes a future where everyday physical objects will be connected to the Internet and be able to identify themselves to other devices." The "things" will connect via RFID, Bluetooth and sensor networks. Oh, and in case you’re wondering how these devices will "know" each other, there’s no need to worry. IPv6 will be able to provide an address for every atom in the universe.
The everyday physical objects that could be connected through the IoT run from the simple and mundane (refrigerators, toasters) to the complicated and critical (helping California’s drought-stricken farmers grow more crops with less water by sensing soil moisture and only watering the plants that are thirsty). If you think the NSA knows a lot about you now, just wait until they snoop into your refrigerator and notice that your mayo is months past its use-by date. (Read more in Is the NSA Spying on Me?)
The IoT has experienced a great deal more than its 15 minutes of fame recently. A search for "the Internet of things" returns almost twice the Google search results as the more ubiquitous computing term "the cloud." Clearly, more than a few people are wondering not only what the $#@! IoT is, but why it matters. Computer, the magazine of the IEEE Computer Society, stated that "after the World Wide Web and universal mobile accessibility, the IoT represents the most potentially disruptive technological revolution of our lifetime. With 50 to 100 billion things expected to be connected to the Internet by 2020, we are now experiencing a paradigm shift in which everyday objects become interconnected and smart."
Yup, the robots really are taking over. But while it’s easy to make light of interconnected kitchen appliances, the IoT also has the potential to do some real good. Airplane manufacturers are already building airframes with networked sensors that send continuous data on product wear-and-tear to their computers, allowing for proactive maintenance and reducing unplanned downtime. Meanwhile, pill-shaped micro cameras are almost ready to explore the human digestive tract and send back data that can help doctors determine illness.
Those sound like great ideas, but what about security for these billion-odd devices? What if someone hacked your fridge and turned the temperature up to 75 degrees while you were on vacation? You’d have a lot more than spoiled mayo to throw out.
It turns out that security has already become an issue with some IoT devices. Recently, the security firm Proofpoint reported that smart devices, including TVs and at least one refrigerator, had been hacked. In addition to "Breaking Bad" and ice cubes, these devices dispensed spam for several weeks in late 2013 and early 2014. It turns out that you not only have to close your refrigerator, you also need to change the default username and password - who knew?
Of course, it’s one thing for a refrigerator to start spewing spam, it’s an order of magnitude worse for an aircraft wing to tell the plane’s computer that it doesn’t have a crack when it really does. That makes security the issue that's worth worrying about when it comes to this new technology.
So, what the $#@! is the Internet of Things? It's just the Internet, with a whole lot of new, smart devices attached. And while the nascent Internet of Things may not be looking to extinguish the human race anytime soon, that doesn't mean there won't be some serious growing pains with this technology. Until security problems are resolved, let's just say that you should probably start being nice to the next major appliance you purchase.