The What And Why Of The Internet Of Things

​If you haven’t heard about the Internet of Things yet, you’re either too busy living your life to the limit, or congratulations: you’ve truly unplugged, and I envy your peace of mind.

If you haven’t heard about the Internet of Things yet, you’re either too busy living your life to the limit, or congratulations: you’ve truly unplugged, and I envy your peace of mind.

Peter Lewis coined the term “Internet of Things”—IoT, for short—back in 1985 to describe how a ubiquitous network of sensors connected to the Internet can deliver information about the physical world directly to enterprise systems without human intervention. Like many game-changing concepts, it has taken 30 years for these ideas to build mainstream momentum in the marketplace.

See how Uptake's data science is redefining public transit for Smart Cities of the future

Computers are certainly nothing new; the abacus was a mechanical adding machine, after all, and Charles Babbage conceived his wonderfully mechanical analytical engine in 1837. General-purpose electronic computers have been available for more than 60 years, having gone from large to small mainframe, to minicomputer, to personal computer, and mobile device, with increasing connectivity all along the way. A general-purpose computer without Internet access is now a rarity.

Today, we’re not engaging with just one network anymore. We interact with multiple networks as we go about our daily lives. We surf the web, wear connected devices and increasingly interact with physical objects in our world that have computing and networking technology built into them. This opens up opportunities never before possible that will change the nature of work, leisure, commerce and the infrastructure all around us.

So what is IoT, and why should you care about it? Because pervasive computing and networking enable insight that can broadly drive efficiency improvements as well as more effective responses to needs and threats. These IoT data-driven insights save time, money and lives.

What is IoT?

To start, a basic definition of IoT is as follows:

  • The Internet of Things is a collection of connected devices and services that work together to do something useful.

We could get more technical, but at the end of the day, that’s exactly what it is. Let’s add another sentence to that definition:

  • A good IoT product or service—a “smart, connected product”—is so effective that switching to something similar that is not connected will at best annoy the user and at worst may not even be feasible.

Now I’ll add three more points to this:

  • A physical device is IoT-enabled if it takes advantage of low-cost sensors, low-cost computer chips and a wireless connection.
  • Multiple IoT-enabled devices that are co-located can work together.
  • Many IoT-enabled devices will take advantage of cloud services through Internet connections at those locations.

Smart, connected products with these capabilities can fundamentally transform the markets where they are offered. There are already thousands of existing examples of IoT-enabled devices in a wide range of competitive arenas, including consumer wearables, smart home, healthcare, building automation, energy management, manufacturing, chemical processing, insurance and more. Those aimed at the IoT in major industries, specifically, can increase productivity, reduce unplanned downtime and improve product differentiation.

Why Now?

A technology becomes ubiquitous only with the right combination of factors, and many never take off simply because it is too cost prohibitive relative to the value it enables. IoT is happening now because a number of contributing factors are available together for the first time:

Low-cost semiconductors and ubiquitous wireless

More than a billion smartphones are currently sold each year in a highly competitive market, with new designs introduced every 12-18 months. This continual growth and design evolution drives down component costs, especially for adjacent markets that can use older generation devices. It’s not just Moore’s law driving down the footprint and cost for semiconductors and computing capacity. Koomey’s law is there as well, steadily reducing the energy needed to produce that computing capacity. When also factoring in how ubiquitous wireless networking and IPV6 support have become, it’s clear that the infrastructure needed to provide “connected intelligence” about the world around us is readily available.

Manufacturers can now add small, embedded microcontrollers and wireless chips to just about any physical object at low incremental cost. This embedded computing and connectivity will eventually be as common as a power plug or a battery. In fact, several forecasts are expecting annual production of these smart, connected products to exceed eight billion units within five years.

Web-scale, open source cloud computing, big data and data science

Cloud technology is continuing to advance rapidly, and can arguably be more secure and cost effective than premise-based alternatives. It is now possible to quickly and efficiently gather, store and analyze massive amounts of unstructured data at web scale, and take action on the insights we develop from that analysis. We can distribute computing tasks horizontally, vertically and geographically, both centralized and close to a physical machine, process or any physical object, enabling virtually unlimited capacity and the ability to implement analytics algorithms where they will have the greatest positive impact. We can find insight across a population of anything of interest and then leverage that insight locally or remotely for each member of that group, in real-time, near real-time or historically as appropriate. The potential benefits from these capabilities are basically bounded only by our creativity.

How will IoT impact our daily lives?

Over the next five to ten years we will witness an unprecedented acceleration and proliferation of smart connected products and services. There will soon come a time where it will be increasingly rare to find a product category that won’t be enhanced in some way by embedded microcontrollers, connectivity and services. The cities and towns we live in will have publicly owned and available interfaces to everything from the nearest parking spot to air quality, social events, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, utility and transportation information that will enhance our lives.

Everyday objects, smart and connected, wherever we are…

Most of us have three primary locations where we spend the majority of our time: our home, workplace and personal vehicle. Dozens of connected devices are already in our cars and homes. Hundreds, if not thousands, are in individual stores and commercial buildings. A sizable portion of the population already has two or more devices on their person at any time, if not more.

To add it up, that’s dozens—sometimes hundreds—of devices that we are interacting with every day, either directly or on our behalf. And there’s little doubt that this number will increase steadily over the next few years. It isn’t a new development in computing that our homes, offices and factories are adopting more and more computers that communicate with each other, but the acceleration by which it is happening, and the speed of the evolution of these systems, is unprecedented.

Another key factor is that those devices can connect and work together in single locations, becoming new kinds of complex systems. For example, cars already have dozens of computers in them that all talk with each other. Manufacturers needing to reduce emissions and improve fuel economy began by adding engine sensors and an embedded computer. Now they’ve worked their way across every other system in the car, including transmission, suspension, brakes, lighting, climate control and “infotainment.”

…enhanced by cloud services

To continue with the above example, your car’s systems already communicate with each other, and when you take it to the dealer, their diagnostic equipment communicates with it. GM’s OnStar system has been in cars for more than ten years, and if you drive an electric vehicle, you use a charging station in your home and a smartphone app that interacts with them.

Connected devices can do truly useful things by interacting with Internet-connected services. An appliance could detect a fault, automatically connect to a support center and provide status information. A glucose monitor could report readings to an attending physician. A complex machine could process data locally and also upload data about thousands of data points, which would then need to be loaded and analyzed.

Uptake’s Take on IoT

As both individuals and as companies, technology changes how we work and live. Uptake’s answers platform wouldn’t have even been possible two years ago.

At Uptake, data gathered from physical processes, machines and equipment provides the essential raw material for our platform. Much of this data is collected without direct human intervention, just as Kevin Ashton described back in 1999. We evaluate enormous amounts of real-time data at incredible speed, transforming information from connected devices into actionable insights and recommendations. We then use that learning to help our partners achieve material competitive advantage.

We believe that IoT and data science will broadly and materially optimize operations across industries. An on-demand approach that relies on analytics applied to measurements across an asset population will reduce inefficiencies inherent in scheduled and repetitive tasks, reduce unplanned downtime, improve logistics and field support while simultaneously reducing waste. Detailed feedback on how products and services are actually used will allow producers to evolve their designs to more effectively address customer needs.

Businesses today are producing more data than ever thanks to the explosion of connected devices, and they will fall behind if they don’t optimize their operations with the insights garnered from their data. Our platform is exactly in line with the promises of IoT, allowing for them to leverage those insights in the office, in the field or on equipment itself. Making this happen takes deep expertise in multiple disciplines, not to mention an entrepreneurial team of makers and thinkers. And with the enormous growth–and huge potential–that IoT has to impact major industries, the most forward-thinking businesses will look to embrace it in order to drive the real business results that data has to offer.