Explain IoT (providing examples along the way)

What is IoT?

The IoT is the network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators and connectivity which enables these things to connect and exchange data. The term “Thing” in “Internet of Things” is used quite broadly. For example, a thing within the IoT could be a person with a heart monitor implant, a pet with a biochip transponder, a vehicle that has built-in sensors to alert the driver when tire pressure is low — or any other natural or man-made object that an IP address can be assigned to, thus gaining the ability to transfer data over a network. As a result, it is becoming increasingly easy to create opportunities to directly integrate the physical world into computer-based systems which results in improvements, efficiency, economic benefits and reduced human exertion.

The definition of the IoT has evolved due to a convergence of multiple technologies such as wireless technology, machine learning, automation, micro-electromechanical systems, and the internet. This convergence has facilitated the bridging of the gap between operational technology and information technology, allowing unstructured machine-generated data to be analyzed for insights that will drive innovation. The concept of a network of smart devices has been around since 1982. A modified Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon University became the first internet-connected appliance. The Coke Machine was able to report its inventory and whether newly loaded drinks were cold. The contemporary vision that we have of the IoT today, is in large part due to the efforts of Mark Weiser’s paper, “The Computer of the 21st Century.” His paper talked about ubiquitous computing, and how eventually technology would become so intertwined with our lives to the point where we couldn’t even imagine how life would be otherwise. In his book “Emerging Technologies for Learning,” David Becta describes ubiquitous computing as “ a vision of computing power ‘invisibly’ embedded in the world around us and accessed through intelligent interfaces: ‘Its highest ideal is to make a computer so embedded, so fitting, so natural, that we use it without even thinking about it.’ This is about a shift to human-centered computing, where technology is no longer a barrier, but works for us, adapting to our needs and preferences and remaining in the background until required. This implies a change in our relationship with ICT [Information and Communications Technology] to a much more natural way of interacting and using the power of networked computing systems which will be connected not just to the internet or other computers, but to places, people, everyday objects and things in the world around us.”

Practical Applications of IoT

In his 1999 presentation to Procter & Gamble, Kevin Ashton, the co-founder of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained the potential of IoT: “Today computers — and, therefore, the internet — are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information. Nearly all of the roughly 50 petabytes (a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes) 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. 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. 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.” Practical application of IoT technology can be seen in numerous industries, but I’ll focus on transportation and building management for this article.

IoT Example: Autonomous Vehicles

An autonomous vehicle, sometimes referred to as self-driving cars or driverless cars, is a vehicle that uses a combination of sensors, camera, radar and artificial intelligence (AI) to travel between destinations without a human operator. In order to qualify as being completely autonomous, a vehicle must be able to navigate without needing human intervention to a predetermined destination via roads that have not been adapted for its use.

AI technologies power self-driving car systems. Developers of autonomous vehicles use vast amounts of data from image recognition systems along with neural networks and machine learning. The intersection of these various fields results in being able to build systems that can drive autonomously. Neural networks identify patterns in the data, obtained through sensors and various other hardware, which is passed on to the machine learning algorithms. One prominent example is Google’s self-driving car which uses a mix of sensors and then combines all of the data generated by those systems in order to identify objects around the vehicle.

IoT Example: Smart Homes

Smart Home technology, also known as home automation is a classic example of the IoT in practice. Home automation provides home owners with comfort, security, convenience and improves energy efficiency by affording them the ability to control other smart devices, usually via a smart home app on their smartphone or a different networked device. Smart home systems and devices operate together and share consumer usage data among themselves in order to automate actions based on the owner’s preferences.

Today, almost every appliance associated with domestic life has a smart home option. A few examples:

  • Smart TVs connect to the internet to access content through applications, such as on-demand video and music. Some smart TVs also include voice or gesture recognition.
  • Using smart locks and garage-door openers, users can grant or deny access to visitors. Smart locks can also detect when residents are near and unlock the doors for them.
  • Pet care can be automated with connected feeders. Houseplants and lawns can be watered by way of connected timers.

Concerns Associated with IoT

Invasion of Privacy & Unlawful Surveillance

As I mentioned earlier in the article, a thing is essentially any object that can be assigned an IP address. Unfortunately, as technology advances, so too does the potential for unethically using that technology increase. Briefly returning to our smart home example, and internet-connected door lock could possibly be used to monitor when a person enters or leaves their home. TVs with voice control capability could potentially be used as a listening device to eavesdrop on conversations. One potential defense against IoT attacks is to segment your network. This means creating two distinct networks in your house: one network houses mobile devices and personal computers while the other is reserved for IoT devices.

Network Security

One fundamental concern regarding IoT is the fact that the more devices you have, the more data you have to protect. A decade ago, most people just had to worry about protecting their personal computers. A few years later, we had to worry about protecting our smartphones as well. Now, there’s a plethora of “things” that we need to protect. The bottom line is that any device with built-in network connectivity is a potential security risk because hackers have more points within the network to exploit. Additionally, not only do we have to be concerned about where our data is stored, we also have to be wary of what data IoT devices transmit and where they ultimately end up.


Although IoT seems like an extremely attractive concept in theory, we need to consider ways to improve upon the technology in order to ensure the safety of data and privacy. A glaring hole concerning IoT is the fact that there is not a comprehensive means of managing all of an individual’s IoT devices. If on the other hand, we are able to fix those issues, it will certainly be interesting to witness how exactly people’s behavior would change. Hopefully we never get to experience the negative aspects of IoT portrayed in Black Mirror.



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