THE BLOG

What is The Internet of Things?

07/05/2015 11:31 BST | Updated 06/05/2016 10:59 BST

What is the Internet of Things (IoT)? The name doesn't help much does it? A thing is how you describe something that's difficult to describe. The Thing was the subject of a John Carpenter horror movie where a parasitic extra-terrestrial imitates human form. Perhaps there was no better way to describe a parasite like that?

I am not a network specialist involved in building the IoT, but I know enough about technology to be able to imagine some of the implications of the IoT as it grows. However, I keep on hearing "experts" on radio and TV using the fridge example to describe the IoT.

You don't know the fridge example? Let me enlighten you. The basic premise of the IoT is that everything around us can be connected, on the grid, sharing information. So various devices around your home like your TV, fridge, radio, car, oven, and energy meters can all be connected and communicating. Therefore in this wonderful new world where information is abundant, your fridge will be able to warn you that you are running low on milk. In fact, it may even be able to order milk for you when stocks are low.

This is reminiscent of the Amazon Dash buttons, which at present seem like a solution looking for a problem. Dash allows the homeowner to install buttons featuring frequently required products, like laundry liquid - in addition to having a home scanner that can scan items to order them as they are used. Never again will you need to go to the store or even browse a web page because one punch of the Dash button will bring a delivery person over carrying a bottle of Tide.

Dash is not really intelligent in the same way as the fridge example is supposed to be, but suggesting that the best way to describe information sharing is that your fridge becomes intelligent and can order milk on your behalf is vacuous beyond belief.

So how best can the Internet of Things really be described? There are many ways and it changes depending on where you focus - the individual, the home, the city, the country, or the continent. If enormous amounts of data are collected automatically then with careful analysis it can inform and educate. For example, look at the Google Waze app, where real-time traffic speeds can be applied to maps thanks to the phones whizzing around in cars and uploading their present location and speed. The data is gathered in the background. The drivers don't need to do anything to contribute information to the community.

I think there are two devices for the home that really summarise what the constantly connected nature of the IoT really means.

. The Nintendo Quality of Life Sleep Monitor is a box that sits in your bedroom. It doesn't need to touch you in any way. It's not a wearable device in the sense that you have to put anything on - it's just there. But it is smart enough to monitor you, especially your sleep patterns, and can advise on how to improve your health through exercise and diet changes based on what the monitor senses about you.

. The Amazon Echo is another box that you introduce to the home and can be thought of in a similar way to Apple's Siri, but inside the home. Your Echo box can be connected to any other electronic device in the home as well as the Internet allowing you to just ask questions out loud and hear them answered. Want to know what the weather will be like tomorrow? Just ask the question out loud. Want to turn off the lights upstairs while you are relaxing on the couch in front of the TV? Just ask and it happens.

This is what we are moving towards, an interconnected environment where all the systems in your home are networked, intelligent, and can be controlled by your voice. Where your home is monitoring your health automatically. Where your car is automatically diagnosing potential mechanical problems by communicating with the manufacturer directly.

All this interconnection and intelligence will allow systems to self-diagnose problems and to change their use. Your electricity meter can advise you which appliances cost the most to run, your water meter can tell you exactly what it costs every time you run the washing machine. Your natural speaking voice will control everything - not apps on a phone.

Much as it all sounds like science fiction, these technologies are real and here today. Only the earliest of adopters will have transformed their home to this extent at present, but within a decade this level of connectivity will be entirely normal.

All these interconnected devices will not only communicate and work together, but they will generate enormous amounts of diagnostic data. Your vital signs will be constantly recorded. Doctors will be able to play back every heartbeat you ever had. Car manufacturers will be able to see exactly how their vehicles are being used. Utility companies will be able to better plan when and where power is needed because they can see how everyone everywhere is using what they supply. Just storing, managing and analysing all this data is going to be the next big challenge.

Think about it, we didn't even have smart phones or social networking a decade ago. The Internet of Things is set to explode into the reality of our daily lives. It is about time the "experts" stopped talking about fridges ordering milk, because people need to understand how this technology can really change and improve their lives.