The Internet of Things (IoT) encourages users to always be connected, to almost every active device and location. Advocates tout the benefits of sitting on our ever-expanding behinds with so-called labor-saving devices, while others warn of security risks, blatantly stupid applications or devices and, of course, hackers stealing your data.
As is the case with any new tech, both parties are right. But, lets start with understanding a few things.
What Exactly is the Internet of Things?
In its simplest form, the Internet of Things is the connection of various electronic devices to the Internet. More specifically, IoT is the network of connected devices, including smartphones, vehicles, washing machines, wearable devices- basically anything with an On/Off switch- that enables machine-to-machine communication. IoT devices are each embedded through a computing system. This means that each piece of technology is easily identifiable, but is also capable of inter-operation in the Internet infrastructure. Using IoT technology, objects can be exchanged and controlled from remote devices using previously established networks. This connection enables greater integration of our two worlds: physical and electronic.
"The Internet of Things encourages laziness and drives innovation [at the same time]," said Czarina Walker, founder and chief executive officer at InfiniEDGE Software, a Louisiana-based developer of custom web and mobile applications. "We just have to make it our quest to use the time saved by IoT-enabled devices to be more innovative instead of resting on our 'genius,'" she added.
Fair point; IoT platform adoption should depend on practical applications rather than blindly adopting tech toys that offer alternatives to actions that are, or at least should be, second nature. And when restaurants, business meetings, cinemas and other public places resonate with a variety of chimes, whistles and other annoying alerts from smartphones, social media, email and more, do we really need push notifications from the fridge or toaster?
How Connected Is Too Connected?
Smartphones, tablets and other portable devices keep users connected to "vital" services, but when do we switch off? Even family meals are accompanied by furious responses to tweets, grunts and oh-so inventive observations on live TV shows or awards ceremonies. Are celebrities so starved for attention that they want to interact with preoccupied viewers?
It's time we all made a conscious effort to distance ourselves from companies touting wasteful products, only selecting those that have a tangible benefit or are dedicated to tasks that require some degree of effort. We're talking an hour or more, not a few seconds.
In this writer's humble opinion, those chasing the perfect work-life balance or negligible time and process maximization are sort of missing the point. Technology is supposed to aid communication, not hinder it for the sake of being different. They're also supposed to save labor in some way but without generating additional risk in the process.
What Would Jesus Use?
Labor-saving devices have historically delivered as promised, but what are the benefits of the "smart" diaper (yep, it's a thing) or smart thermostat?
Will future generations celebrate their conception in the same way as the light bulb, telephone or the Internet? Or will they look back on us as gullible fools, caught up in Internet of Things (mostly stupid things) propaganda and a never-ending list of smart devices that shoehorn their way into modern culture? Humans don't need to be constantly connected to make it through the day.
Those considering so-called "smart devices" need to ask themselves some searching questions that include, but are not limited to:
- Is this a new invention?
- Is it smart just because a programmed sensor is added? A chopstick with a sensor added is still a chopstick.
- Does it save me time or money?
- Does it introduce security risks that are acceptable to me or my business?
- Would Indiana Jones, Captain Picard, James Bond or Jesus use it?
Health, safety or emergency products are the few areas that make IoT an interesting proposition, but only if they are secured correctly. WIRED recently gave a clear indication of just how vulnerable Internet of Things solutions are. Telehealth, connected cars and emergency broadcast and alert systems (employed in hospitals and colleges, for example) are all valid uses of IoT but all manufacturers need to lock down security issues before product launch — with prompt updates available as exploits are identified. Agreeing on a common IoT service standard would also help.
Go Ahead, but Consider Security
Ideally, IoT-enabled devices should be managed on a separate, firewalled network (and wired rather than wireless) since hacking these devices is easier. Your appliances and sensors are then free to communicate without compromising essential data.
The key driving factors for IoT are automation, efficiency and end-user interaction. This will ultimately ensure increased adoption of smart homes, offices and even a smart city. "Smart offices will become increasingly valuable, especially in certain industries," said Walker. We've already seen where equipment can notify repair technicians when it is in need of repair — saving companies from downtime."
Walker has already embraced smart home and office technology for her business but recognizes the benefits and limitations involved. "My obsessive checking of the stove and 'Did I lock the doors?' before I left the house can now be solved, wherever I am," she said. "As a business owner, I want someone on my team to know when something is not working properly — or might be at risk of failure — I can then ensure this is fixed and prevent downtime. IT pros will find that their departments need dedicated IoT policies to specifically explain what is allowable. IoT is the new 'bring your own device' for IT professionals," she added.
If our refrigerators can clean and stock themselves without intervention, it's a time-saver. Until the time they can go to the store, select products or accept deliveries without us, however, smart fridges are of little benefit and costly to boot. So, if we are to maintain our reputation as savvy consumers, we all need to think carefully before we select and purchase innovative IoT devices that enhance our quality of life, whether in a home or office environment, disregarding those that are aimed at couch potatoes or gadget collectors.
In the meantime, let's relax in front of our "dumb" TVs, pour a glass of wine from a dumb decanter or simply read a dumb book. Alternatively, we could spend time with our dumb family and friends — dumb in the sense that they have yet to be connected with embedded sensors.