Our most recent budget saw Mr Osborne pledge £40 million towards funding Internet of Things research (alongside £100 million for driverless cars, and £10 million for ‘the future of digital currencies’). This is a bold step in the right direction, but the Chancellor’s own fumbling explanation exemplifies how unknown this technology still is – even as it accelerates towards the mainstream.
Gartner highlighted the Internet of Things in their top 10 trends for 2015, alongside Computing Everywhere. These are actually very similar notions, and they really could be summarized under that one heading – computers everywhere. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the name used to describe the work being done to link everyday objects with the Internet.
Mr Osborne used the often cited example of the internet enabled fridge that can pre-order your milk when it’s empty, remind you that you’ve run out of eggs or simply change temperature remotely via your mobile app. In fact, he rather garbled the traditional illustration with a reference to someone with two fridges needing an app to control them simultaneously (something, as an MP, he is presumably more familiar with than the rest of us). Regardless, it is promising to see continued support for next generation innovation.
The IoT is the union of a number of wider trends, hence its title as ‘Web 3.0’ – the next stage of the internet. Internet 1.0 refers to when computers first became linked to a global network, able to share data seamlessly around the world. Google and Amazon are the giants of this era, prospering from our increased access and demand for information. As the internet became increasingly personalized through blogs and social networks we moved into Internet 2.0. This refers to the era of Facebook and Twitter when the internet evolved from simply enabling computers to connect, to allowing people to connect. IoT is the next stage of this evolution, in which everything will become connected – from your fridge to your stereo – hence the Internet of Things.
Imagine a world where your fridge orders your weekly shop as required, your light and heating know when you leave the house in the morning through Bluetooth or GPS – even your morning coffee is made automatically. This is clearly a huge opportunity for both consumer convenience and efficiency, but also an incredible revenue opportunity for companies spanning almost every industry conceivable. The surprise is that it is not more well known.
IoT is fundamentally dependent on a number of enabling technologies, and it is only recently that these have really come together to make this kind of innovation possible. Integration on this level requires much more extensive hardware – your average fridge doesn’t tend to have an ethernet port, let alone it’s own AI… However costs have been dropping exponentially, particularly the semiconductors required for the holistic network of sensors in everyday objects that will be required to give IoT the universality it requires. Then, this hardware actually needs to be able to connect to the internet, and the proliferation of wifi, 3rd /4th /5th Generation wireless and Bluetooth has only recently become ubiquitous enough to support such global coverage. Taken together, cheaper hardware and better coverage means that we are already in a position to create the electronic network required to link your toaster to your TV – but that doesn’t make them ‘smart’.
IoT is only valuable if we can make use of this information. What use is it that your fridge knows the milk is gone if it can’t tell you in a meaningful way? To do this we would need much more extensive programming built into previously simple devices, raising costs prohibitively. This brings us on to the final enabling trend – cloud computing. Instead of building a tiny computer in every household appliance and piece of furniture, we now have the capacity to simply upload the data to the internet and have the ‘smart’ aspect taken care of remotely. Our fridge simply needs to be able to send and receive data, with all the clever programming taken care of in a data-center somewhere.
This is the crucial point with IoT – it needs to be useful. Philips ‘Hue’ lightbulbs can be adjusted via smartphone app, but if you have to unlock your phone and find the app – surely it would be simpler to just hit the light switch? We need to be careful to avoid getting too excited with our vision of a globally integrated world, that we miss how IoT can really change the one we live in.
The Internet of Things is a fundamental evolution in the way we interact with computers and it is very promising to see positive investment from our political leaders. But this is tinted by an apparent lack of understanding of the real meaning of this evolution. Perhaps Mr Osborne needs to stop worrying about keeping track of his multiple fridges, and start engaging engaging with the technologies he is advocating.