What is IoT (Internet of Things)

An introduction, and some ramblings on security, of IoT.

This kinda sums it all

IoT is defined, in Wikipedia, as:

The Internet of things (IoT) describes the network of physical objects — “things” — that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet.

The definition is very accurate, but lends itself to simplification. Sometimes it’s hard to understand new concepts when put in such stark terms.

What I will try to do here is go from a stark explanation of the subject, to a more amicable, accessible one. Why start with the stark one? Because some of the explanations I will give along the way will come in handy for the approachable one to make sense, plus, it comes in handy to have all of this vocabulary clear for the examples illustrating the implications of IoT at the end of the article.

Let’s first deconstruct the first sentence and try to make its concepts clear. The definition’s first technical mention is that of a network of physical objects. The word network implies connection, right? So, for this first part, we can imagine a spider-web which has, at each of its radial’s endings, a physical object, or as the definition itself puts it, things — thus, you can imagine any physical object: a car, a mug, a mouse, a watch, etc — . For the sake of our example. Let’s imagine a spider-web with three radials (a radial is the string that diverges from the centre of the web to the end to the end on a straight line), and at the end of each of these, a T.V, a phone, and the screen of your imaginary (or not, if you have one) Tesla car.

The next part of the definition states that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies. This is an easy one. Just as you have senses (sight, hearing, touch, etc) and are equipped with certain thought processes (you know how to do math, play chess (or other games), wash the dishes, etc), so your phone, for example, is equipped with certain senses: a camera (to see), a proximity sensor (to know when something is near), a light sensor (to know how much light is in the environment and adjust its screen brightness accordingly); and certain thought processes, or algorithms (generally embedded in apps), to carry away tasks: something as simple as a calculator app or the alarm on your phone, or as complicated as Google maps or Uber. Let’s add to the objects in our example some of these functionalities. Given that all have screens, all should be able to reproduce video content, and let’s say all are equipped with a program or app to measure the time you have spent watching any kind of video content and the kind of content (movies on Netflix, random videos on YouTube, WhatsApp videos sent from your relatives, etc).

Let’s now dig into the final part of the definition for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet. This one es even easier. It simply means that the data collected by all of these three devices is shared between them, hence the radials in the cliched spider-web analogy. Now, what can you do with all of this information? Well, you could restrict the amount of content in video format you see, total, on these three devices; you could also implement an algorithm to trace your tastes and recommend to you even more content related to what you saw, which is something that most video platforms already do (Netflix recommends shows and movies according to what you have seen and YouTube feeds you random videos related to what you have chosen). This is all not necessarily new, but we could expand this to even more important things. You could set the devices to trace how much of a specific political candidate’s videos you are seeing and ask it to feed you with other, contrasting videos, to have a wider, more informed perspective on the subject; or you could have an algorithm search the web for videos and documentation related to that three-part documentary you binge watched last week, or an in-depth analysis of that Fly episode from Breaking Bad which you are obsessing over; all of this streaming directly to any of your three devices. The advantage of something like this, compared to what apps already do, is that you could monitor any kind of video consumption and play with that information.

This all may seem a little convoluted and perhaps unimportant. For a more illustrative example, imagine a smart watch, a cell phone (both yours), a computer inside your nearest healthcare provider’s facilities, and the GPS of an ambulance, all interconnected. Say you are sleeping and your smartwatch (equipped with a heart rate monitor sensor) starts vibrating and blinking, waking you up and flashing in the screen a message telling you to look at your phone. You take your phone and, as soon as you unlock it, the smart watch’s app opens itself and tells you that your blood pressure is high, your blood pressure is erratic and you should take an aspirin right away, which you do. Meanwhile, all the data your smart watch collected, and which was sent to your phone, was sent to that computer from your healthcare provider and is alerting your M.D. that those are your symptoms and also pulling your clinic history, from which you M.D. can deduct, from the sedentary lifestyle that you have been leading, that you are having a heart attack. Immediately a message is sent to the ambulance nearest you, thanks to its GPS, that they should be getting to your house ASAP. Your data is also sent to the cell phone of the health expert in the ambulance, so he can outline a course of action as soon as he gets to your home. The situation is taken care of and a horrible situation avoided. Your smart watch was able to sense your heart rate and communicate with your phone, which was able to parse the data and give you some advices while also communicating with your healthcare system, which communicated to a computer that had, in memory, your clinical history, and was able to alert the ambulance that had a pretty accurate sense of where it was (GPS) and also the people inside the ambulance. All of this led to a horrible situation avoided. Explained this way may still seem a little convoluted, but a hell of a lot more important. Also, take into account that what you experienced is removed from this explanation. You woke up, looked at your smart watch, then your phone, took an aspirin and waited for help to arrive. That was it.

There are many devices and many ways in which you can add some kind of sense, intelligence and interconnectivity. One of the major gripes the Internet of Things has to be able to develop further in our culture is all the effort that must be put into its infrastructure and of making its functionality accessible, so that you, as a user, don’t have to gripe with all the steps named in the last example, and everything just works, so that working with it is not a schlep. Another, perhaps bigger, problem is the fact that these devices have to collect a lot of personal, maybe even delicate, information and share it amongst themselves. This means, your personal information would be traveling all sorts of servers and devices, where it can be tracked, intercepted, perused and misused; or that the ecosystem in which the process works is owned by a huge company that may want to do other stuff with your information. If you have Cortana or Siri enabled in your Android or Apple device, and have an ecosystem with them, for example a speaker (Amazon Eco, Apple Homepod, Google nest), your information and interactions with these devices can be, and probably are, being recorded. So, if you tell your phone or speaker to play the latest Kanye West album over and over, Google can see that pattern and maybe sell that information to the Record Layer owner of that Album so that it can advertise its CD/DVD Gold combo to you. This is something that you may or may not find intrusive, it can even be considered helpful. But let’s also say that your speaker or phone hears and parses a conversation you are having with your significant other about that new, annoying feeling you get every time when trying to pee in the bathroom. Say that info is sold to a chain of drugstores near you that advertises a pee-pain reliever (don’t even know if that’s a thing but for the sake of example); the pain reliever works extraordinarily well, you avoid seeing a doctor because now is not such a big deal, and several months down the line you find yourself painfully peeing a kidney stone which could have been avoided had your doctor been able to give you a urine exam and advise to drink more water, not to count the amount of money you spent on those pee pills.

Something to keep in mind when interacting with all the devices around us, and also to ponder on, there are many issues that can be solved applying IoT to some stuff.

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Sometimes writer, avid for programming.