A connected future

January 2018

Girl working on robot armSoly Mathew Biju and Alex Mathew take us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the potential futures for the internet of things.

'...It can also be maintained that it is best to provide the machine with the best sense organs that money can buy, and then teach it to understand and speak English. This process could follow the normal teaching of a child.'

This very concept, that the great computer scientist Alan Turing spoke about way back in 1950, has since taken flight and has now gone mainstream. The internet of things has now permeated into every fathomable sector, right from consumer electronics to becoming an integral part of the industrial sector. No wonder then, that Cisco rechristened this technology 'Internet of everything'.

Going by stats released by Forbes, with an incredible 22.9 billion connected ‘things’ in 2016, this technology is only just finding its bearings, with the number pegged to reach a whopping 50.1 billion devices in just four years!

Rapid strides made in the fields of big data analysis, machine learning, deep learning and artificial intelligence further create a perfect launch pad for IoT to take to the skies.

Industrial IoT

Industrial IoT is still in its infancy, with deployment of the technology currently largely limited to the automobile industry. The near future though is expected to witness the fourth industrial revolution, with IoT at the helm of things.

Various industries, led by the automotive sector, are already transitioning towards complete automation across the supply chain in order to promote lean manufacturing. IoT would enable real-time monitoring and management of processes, wherein ‘things’ across the assembly line would be able to communicate with each other to pretty much rule out any margin for error.

Apart from leading to an exponential increase in efficiency and productivity, this would allow for high levels of customisation of products at a very granular level. Furthermore, oversupply, which often plagues industries, would be eradicated, as products would be manufactured on order. Amazon already employs a fleet of Kiva robots in its warehouses, which autonomously handles all operations right from picking to packaging.

Soundwave communication

Internet of everything is the next phase in the evolution of IoT devices, wherein connected devices communicate with one another, instead of being limited to just communicating with humans.

A groundbreaking development that is further paving the way for this new revolution is Chirp - a sonic barcode that allows for data to be encoded into an audio stream that can be transmitted through a speaker, which in turn is decoded by the target device fitted with a microphone.

The brain child of a group of researchers at the University College London, Chirp eschews the need for additional communication components such as Bluetooth, near-field communication (NFC), Wi-Fi, and QR codes, which would allow for IoT devices to function even in remote locations with limited connectivity.

Integration of connectivity platforms can significantly contribute toward cost of the end product and thus, Chirp would help drive down the cost of IoT devices as it does away with all such components.

Healthcare automation

Robots are already extensively used to carry out extremely complex operations, ensuring minimal error. Over the next few years, IoT is expected to be an integral part of the healthcare sector, right from monitoring vital patient statistics in real-time to completely doing away with human intervention during complex operations, wherein a fleet of robots would communicate with each other to carry out the task.

IoT would enable various health monitoring devices to seamlessly connect to the cloud and upload/retrieve patient information and accordingly decide upon a course of treatment. This would help with effective and safe upkeep of electronic medical health records.

Various workplaces around the world such as Epicenter - a Sweden-based company - have already adopted the implantation of microchips into their employees to accurately log their work timings. With the advent of nanotechnology, this technology would evolve from being just RFIDs to IoT devices that can monitor patient vitals in real-time in home settings.

Home automation

Smart washing machines and refrigerators that send you text messages when they are low on detergent and grocery, received a lukewarm reception in the market, with most people terming these as gimmicks.

The Amazon Dash button too met a similar fate. Amazon Go - a novel concept grocery store that allows users to simply walk in, pick up the product of their choice and walk out, with the payment seamlessly made online as the customer walks out - looks real promising, but still has a lot of niggles that need to be ironed out.

The next generation of consumer products would be a combination of all these concepts, wherein these IoT devices would do away with the human element altogether. These autonomous devices would ensure that you are always well stocked with grocery and personal care products.

Your smart home would automatically interact with the implanted microchip and also track your social interactions through the day both online and offline using your smartphone. A combination of AI and IoT would allow your smart home to analyse this data and accordingly adjust the temperature, lighting, music, and even alter the order of the TV channels to best suit your mood.

Transportation sector

In the near future, IoT would work together with AI, enabling not only the real-time monitoring of fleets, but also enable automotives to communicate with one another to ensure the smooth flowing of traffic and would also help avert road accidents. Building on the concept of tire pressure monitors and standalone auto diagnostic tools, vehicles would integrate such auto diagnostic systems that would constantly monitor the health and performance of vehicles and upload the information onto clouds.

It would also autonomously schedule maintenance of the vehicle without the user needing to so much as lift a finger. On a much larger scale, an IoT system by Quintiq - a subsidiary of Dassault Systems - has been deployed at the Panama Canal to ensure smooth sailing of vessels and allow for higher volumes of traffic to pass through the canal without any glitches. This concept would be implemented across the globe, especially in the aviation sector to ensure optimal use of airspace and efficient management of flights on runways.

Smart farming

The burgeoning global population is already stretching the agricultural sector to its limits, with the situation further worsened by floods, droughts and the rapidly decreasing soil fertility due to excessive use of fertilizers. Smart farming is a novel concept that would complement a holistic farming approach. This would involve large-scale deployment of IoT sensors to track, among other factors, soil fertility, water content and weather conditions, to allow for optimal usage and maintenance of resources in order to exponentially increase crop yield. These systems would also be extensively deployed to monitor cattle and livestock, and also help prevent outbreaks of animal diseases.

Disaster management

Researchers at Standford University have given us a glimpse into the future, with their army of tiny robots that use IoT sensors to interact with their surroundings and communicate with one another to accomplish a seemingly impossible task.

One of the many herculean tasks accomplished by these robots is six tiny robots working together like an army of ants to pull a 1.8 ton car. Such bots can get into otherwise inaccessible crevices and work together to move heavy objects.

The application of this is endless, right from handling extremely arduous tasks in heavy industries, to helping with clearing rubble and debris when deployed in disaster management. Iterations of such smart machines would also be used to scan the surface of asteroids and mine for precious metals, a concept that is currently being worked upon by companies such as U.S.-based Deep Space Industries.

Furthermore, with advancements in technology, such devices would also be able to replicate themselves, opening new avenues of growth such as in space exploration, which is currently inhibited by relatively short lifespans of humans who wouldn’t be able to make it through intergalactic journeys panning over several hundred light years.

Nanosatellites to provide bandwidth

The unprecedented proliferation of IoT devices would need an equally robust infrastructure to satiate its ever increasing bandwidth cravings. While the internet infrastructure has increased manifold in the last decade, it would not suffice to support smart devices that would outnumber humans by as much as 5:1 over the following decade.

A solution to this would be a constellation of nanosatellites orbiting the Earth that would provide a dedicated network to keep these smart devices and sensors connected. Fleet - an Australian startup - has already set the wheels in motion, having recently received a Series A funding of US$3.8 million.

The successful testing of the reusable rockets part of the Space X programme would provide the much-needed low-cost muscle to power these satellites into orbit. The Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) launching of 104 satellites into space on a single rocket would further provide cost-effective options that can be explored by small - and large-scale companies just the same.

IoT security takes centre stage

Over the following decade, smart devices will no longer be premium products, as manufacturers would integrate smart sensors in all comprehensible systems. With the hardware in place, IoT-as-a-service would be the new model adopted by players in this highly lucrative market. Security though would be a pertinent issue, with the threat of weaponised IoT devices looming overhead.

The connected garage door opener - Garadget - was recently in the news for all the wrong reasons. The provider denied a customer access to his connected garage door, in response to a bad review submitted by the user about the device.

This might seem like a seemingly trivial issue, but it highlights just how vulnerable IoT devices are to cyber-attacks. The hacking of connected webcams and DVRs to create a botnet to target major internet sites in late 2016, further highlighted the loopholes in IoT security.

The classified CIA documents released by WikiLeaks that mentioned internet-connected televisions being used as spying devices further emphasizes the burning need to secure connected devices.

Unlike computers and smartphones, IoT platforms are highly fragmented. The first step towards securing this frontier would be the introduction of dedicated and large-scale platforms released by service providers in conjunction with hardware manufacturers.

Major device manufacturers would focus on creating ecosystems that allow for interconnectivity across a myriad range of smart devices, and also allow for a more robust firewall for IoT devices. While a comprehensive solution to ward off cyber-attack threats is unlikely, given the constantly evolving nature of this technology, large scale coordinated attacks would be far and few between, with dedicated IoT security firms constantly working towards securing these devices. The transitioning of IoT devices towards secured dedicated networks would further help alleviate the situation.

Surveillance, security and everything under the sun

IoT will take off in the near future, quite literally so, with IoT-enabled drones constantly surveilling the skies, monitoring traffic and weather conditions. Autonomous ambulance drones fitted with defibrillators would be able to reach accident sites and provide critical medical aid to victims and would even be able to transport patients to the nearest hospital.

A combination of AI and IoT would allow for the setting up of unmanned command centres to ensure the effective patrolling of inaccessible border areas using weaponised drones. These drones would be able to communicate with the command centre and take appropriate action, as may be deemed necessary.

IoT would lead to a paradigm shift across various industries, the foremost among these being market research. IoT-enabled systems would allow for real-time monitoring of data, which could be further analysed to accurately deduce market trends and, accordingly, align company strategies to effectively capitalise upon growth opportunities.

Deployment of IoT systems in hazardous work environments such as in nuclear reactors and in the mining sector would allow for real-time monitoring of reactors and detect the presence of toxic gases in mines. This would ensure optimal productivity, while drastically reducing the threat to workers employed in these industries.

The age of machines is well and truly upon us, spearheaded by the IoT revolution. While few would argue that this novel technology has transformed our lives largely for the better, there would be no denying that it has also played a crucial part in expediting the progression of technological unemployment.

Time alone will tell though, if we prevail over our creations, as we have throughout our evolutionary cycle. For now though, we surely can take a step back and marvel at the incredible creation that IoT is, as new applications unfold with each passing day. We have only witnessed an IoT(a) of what is in store and the best is yet to come!

About the authors
Dr. Soly Mathew Biju MBCS has 18 years of experience in academics, research and the IT industry. She is also an approved CITP assessor. She is currently employed as an associate professor at the prestigious University of Wollongong in Dubai. Her areas of interest are IOT, big data, e-learning techniques, security and cryptography.
Alex Mathew is an avid tech geek with a child-like enthusiasm to constantly learn and keep himself updated with the latest happenings in the tech world. He has to his name over 200 published articles across a career spanning close to a decade. He is the founder and CEO of ContentMonk.
 

Image: iStock.com/Georgijevic