Every now and then, an object comes along that subtly changes your life. It could be a book arming you with a new set of concepts, an upgraded phone that changes the way you socialise, or a borrowed soldering iron and instructions on how to use it. These objects can provide watershed moments – turning points which alter the way in which you view the world. Last year, I received one of these objects as a gift. It was a lightbulb.
On one level, this lightbulb functions in the same way as those beaming from ceilings around the world. It screws into a standard light fitting and works with the switch on your wall. It also, however, comes with a glowing base station which plugs into a Wi-Fi router. Download an app on your phone, pair it to the base, and things get much more interesting.
Using the app, the bulb can be made to flood the room with colour – from dim magenta to a bright blue-white which mimics summer sunlight. It can be programmed to fade in and wake you up in the morning, or turn on while you’re out of the house to make the place look occupied. Because your phone knows where the base station is, you can set the lights to turn off as soon as you’re a certain distance from home. Buy a sufficient number of bulbs and you can control the lighting for the whole house.
While impressive, none of this functionality changed my life. For me, the turning point happened one cold night, where, from the comfort of my own bed, I reached for my phone and asked Siri to turn off the lights.
It worked perfectly. In that moment, not only did I feel like Tony Stark in Iron Man, but I appreciated the power of “the Internet of Things”.
In one sense, my lightbulb moment arrived rather late. The phrase “the Internet of Things” (IoT) was coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999 and has since been applied to a bewildering range of ideas and technologies by companies eager to sell products.
IoT, however, hinges on a very simple idea: “things” should be able to collect and communicate relevant data to the objects and humans around them. This data is often acted upon by the objects themselves but can also be analysed to better understand a system – to learn, for example, about the routines of the humans using it.
The things in question could be as simple as an Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) chip on a milk bottle, or as complex as the engine in your car; the key idea is that they are able to interact. To give a domestic example, your “smart” door lock could tell your lights that you’re home, turn on the heating and disable the security camera in your bedroom. This isn’t an abstract example – it’s currently possible with existing technology. Further, it’s easy to set up – most devices are packaged with everything they need in order to run, though if you have existing IoT hardware you might need to check that any new gadget will be able to talk to it.
Importantly, while the rules governing what happens when you unlock your door can be as complex as needed, IoT objects are often most effective when they concentrate on doing one job and doing it well – locking or unlocking, turning on or off. The system’s power stems from its interconnectivity, allowing objects to follow orders and tell other appliances what is happening to them. This lends IoT solutions a flexibility not often found in home systems.
Traditionally, for example, installing a motion sensor to turn on some porch lights would have required changes to the wiring. With smart bulbs, you only need to alter their instructions using simple software, adding your new sensor to the list of things allowed to turn them on.
Increasing this power is the fact that many devices have public Application Programme Interfaces (APIs) – documented lists of instructions which can be given using standard programming languages, allowing developers and hobbyists to come up with novel ways for smart devices to interact. This frees the devices from the confines of their manufacturer’s imaginations, unleashing the vibrant and often bewildering creativity of the global tech community. You don’t need to play Minecraft in a room which darkens as you burrow deeper into the Earth, but now you can.
This scope for altering the way in which myriad objects interact means that it’s often difficult to tell people why they should care about the IoT. It will be important to many but for entirely different reasons. Those who find it difficult to get up in the morning might appreciate an app which monitors their sleep, bringing the lights gently up and making coffee at the optimal moment for them to awake. If you’re the kind of person who can’t get through the day without worrying that you’ve left the oven on, you can now use your smartphone to check it from work.
For the security conscious, you can buy sensors for your doors which turn on when you leave the house, activating cameras and warning you via email when disturbed. There’s no single “killer app” for the IoT, but with a growing number of devices controllable in this way, there’s enough variation for everyone to find their own favourite use for it.
Not all of this technology will be unfamiliar to most users. In fact, chances are, you already own the most important part of any domestic IoT system; indeed, it’s probably within reach as you read this article. This is your smartphone, and it’s important for a number of reasons. Firstly, many appliances use phones or similar devices as their main means of control, allowing you to adjust settings, set timers or check on them remotely. From the manufacturer’s view, this makes a lot of sense. They don’t have to worry about selling a screen with each device, which drives down the cost of their products, and the customer gets to interact with their new, potentially-intimidating IoT items through a device that they’re already comfortable with.
What makes using a smartphone (or watch, or any number of other gadgets) truly vital is that it puts the user squarely in the centre of the system. IoT devices are at their best when they react to, and anticipate, the way in which they’re being used by the humans around them.
Connecting to your smartphone is an excellent way of connecting to you – your sleep cycle, your current location, or your preferred type of coffee on a weekday. Used carefully, this data can be used to alter the way IoT devices respond to your habits, without you even having to work out what these habits are.
The technology behind the IoT will also have an impact in more profound ways than the advent of smart thermostats or toasters covered in LEDs. Due in part to the rapidly decreasing cost of sensor technology, and the rise of big data analytics, systems of objects in constant communication with one another are revolutionising whole industries, in what economist Marco Annunziata calls “the age of the industrial internet”.
Back in 2013, he described how sensors could enable failing machinery to report itself, enabling companies to fix machines just before they broke and to cut out costly manual checks on working hardware. This technology could be used to eliminate 10 per cent of delays in airports caused by emergency maintenance, reducing the risk of spending your first day of holiday in some bland, cavernous waiting hall.
The IoT could also provide invaluable help to those undergoing medical treatment, or who need to monitor their diet closely. Last year, the US Food and Drug Administration approved an ingestible sensor – a pill containing a small electronic circuit, powered by the acids in your stomach. This contains a tiny transmitter, which relays information about your diet to an external monitor, as well as reporting on the levels of any medications you are meant to be taking. This has clear applications for conditions such as diabetes or obesity, and could allow patients and doctors to make decisions based on what’s actually going on in real time.
Combine this with pulse, weight and temperature sensors and you could, for example, send vital signs to your doctor from the comfort of your own home. Rather than relying on check-ups or being kept under observation in hospital, this could mean patients only get called in or visited by a nurse if things look like they’re about to go wrong.
With this increased importance, however, comes an increased vulnerability. When a connected lightbulb gets its instructions mixed up and turns on in the middle of the night – and I speak from experience here – it is primarily irritating. A similar malfunction in a heart rate monitor could be fatal.
As with many emerging forms of technology, the IoT has a sinister and potentially dangerous side. The risk of having a house full of objects in constant communication is that some of that conversation could be intercepted, allowing attackers to build up a revealing picture of your daily routine.
This threat becomes more serious as corporations and governments increase their use of sensors to measure the large, complex systems which humans inhabit – from hospitals to entire cities.
There is also the vital question of who owns the data produced by IoT devices. Information gathered about household habits is invaluable to marketing professionals, especially if it can be linked to a social media profile through a connected phone. It’s already extremely difficult for users to know which third parties their social data is being sold to and what it’s used for, and it’s vital that safeguards are put in place to give users control over this data.
While these questions of ethics and security are being debated, the chances are the IoT will start to make an impact on all of our lives over the coming years; though this impact may not be immediately obvious. You may find an appliance which removes a particular annoyance from your day, or be able to use sensor technology to better understand your business. It could help you to manage your diet, worry less, or, like me, simply turn the lights off from bed. Each of these, in its own, modest way, could change your life.
Josh Smith is a software developer and researcher at the Demos think tank.