What is the Internet of things or machine-to-machine communication? What are some of the implications and issues that may still need to be resolved?
For those among us who are sci-fi buffs, “machine-to-machine” communication has been the norm for several decades. Over the last few years, technology has made considerable strides to get devices interconnected, and it is widely anticipated that the “Internet of Things” will become more established in our societies in the medium- to longer term.
While many of us have heard of the term “Internet of Things”, we might not fully understand what it means and what might be some of the implications for us individually, and for society as a whole. This post offers some insight into these matters, and also highlights a few of the challenges and issues that may still need to be addressed.
What is the Internet of Things?
There is no single definition for the Internet of Things, which is also referred to as “machine-to-machine” (M2M) communications. It is still evolving with the changing technology and based on the sector or application in which it is being referenced. However, the European Technology Platform on Smart Systems Integration has set out the following succinct description:
the network formed by things/objects having identities, virtual personalities operating in smart spaces using intelligent interfaces to connect and communicate with the users, social and environmental contexts.
Although this definition is quite concise, the following five key elements are typically evident when speaking of the Internet of Things:
- the connectedness of objects or things to a network
- the ability of those objects or things to recognise each other
- the ability of those objects or things communicate with each other
- the ability of those objects or things to process information, and
- the ability of those objects or things to make context-driven decisions, based on environmental or external inputs.
The video clip below, further elaborates on what the Internet of Things is:
For the average person, the appeal of the M2M communications is the ways in which it might enhance our daily lives, by helping us to be more efficient by processing outputs from relevant objects or things in our environment. The video clip below, although dated, highlights ways in which the Internet of Things can be applied. To varying degrees, some of the examples given in the clip might already exist in developed countries, but arguably can still be considered isolated situations, since there is still a wealth of things to be networked and made intelligent.
On the other hand, the potential impact of the Internet of Things for businesses and organisations is the ability to collect, and process real-time and continually generated data to:
- improve the effectiveness of the products or services that they offer
- improve organisational efficiencies
- increase responsiveness to customer or client needs
- encourage innovation
- increase overall profitability and sustainability, as appropriate.
It is also important to highlight that as M2M communication becomes more universal, there will be considerable demand for data analytics capabilities in order to the digest and process the data generated. However, as noted in What the big deal about “big data”?, experts are projecting that in the next 5 to 10 years there will be a shortage in those needed skills.
Challenges and potential issues
Finally, although the Internet of Things is being touted as the “next big thing”, and has been featuring prominently in a number of recent trend briefings, there are still a number of issues to be addressed that will affect the roll-out and the overall reliability of those networks of machines. Four are highlighted below.
- Compatibility. Critical to the success of M2M communications is the ability for devices to recognise and communicate to each other. Currently, many manufacturers have developed their own proprietary standards for their own devices, which means that generally, devices from a variety of vendors are unable to exchange of information. Hence the industry has been advocating the development of common or open standards, facilitate the establishment of more coherent and cohesive networks.
- Connectivity. As indicated in the above video clip, and in earlier posts such as 5 key trends evident from the Facebook class action lawsuit, the volumes of data that is being generated has been increasing exponentially, and will continue to do so into the future. Based on an IDC study conducted in 2010, by 2016, 22 ZettaBytes of data (1 ZettaBytes = 1 trillion GigaBytes) will exist globally, from 5.3 ZettaBytes in 2011 (Source: Fortinet). Additionally, an essential consideration in the concept of the Internet of Things is the ability to process data in real-time in order to respond to changing situations.
In order to achieve reasonable performance in a comprehensive M2M system, there must be adequate capacity or bandwidth available to handle the volumes of data that will be created, and to ensure timely transmission and delivery across networks. Additionally, the networks must have reliable connectivity. As has been the experience across the Caribbean, bandwidth limitations can adversely affect connectivity, and the transmission speeds that can be realised. Hence in both developed and developing countries, there may be need to upgrade existing networks to handle the traffic anticipated when M2M communications becomes more widespread.
- Security. It has been widely acknowledged that as more of our lives become electronic or moves online, we are becoming increasingly susceptible to cyber-attacks and a variety of other threats. As the M2M environment becomes more established and commonplace, there is a greater risk that those systems will be targeted for attacks and intrusions. Hence cybersecurity will become even more important.
- Privacy. Finally, it is important to highlight that through the roll out of the Internet of Things, considerable volumes of data on our lives will be produced. We, as users, will unlikely have full control of that data, since it must be processed and transmitted across networks as necessary. Hence we may need to appreciate that in order for the Internet of Things to work successfully, we will be required to adjust our concept of privacy, since our personal data will influence the development of M2M systems and their relevance in our lives.
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