By now you’ve run into at least one reference to smart thermostats, refrigerators and, if the speaker is being a bit smart-alecky, toasters — household appliances that by virtue of low-cost, miniaturized sensors and processors and high-speed high-capacity wireless networks can not only swap information but do something with it.
Your refrigerator could detect that you’re low on milk, or that the apples in the produce bin are getting a bit past prime condition, and not only will it send you an alert but place an order to the online grocery of your choice, which will deliver said items to you.
Such anecdotal tales of the power and potential of the Internet of Things have a circa-1955 “we’ll all be driving flying cars by 1975” feel to it. Whether you really find monitoring the quantity and quality of your refrigerator’s contents to be so burdensome a task that it requires automating is beside the point.
The tales also tend to obscure the true useful potential of these connections and networks, as well as some of the concerns, controversies, threats and issues to be addressed.
An example of the former: Your car is already laden with sensors. What if your car’s sensors could alert not just you but the manufacturer of a developing mechanical problem? What if the manufacturer could send software updates to onboard computers, eliminating the need for recall notices and a trip to the dealer?
An example of the latter: What if someone could use those connections as an access point to steal data and personal information, or worse, manipulate the operation of something like an airplane (as has been claimed) or a medical device?
There’s a temptation to dismiss the more breathless stories about the Internet of Things as one more fad that will fail to deliver (“Where’s the flying car they promised me?”) or one more buzzword that will be in the recycling bin of tired jargon inside of two years.
But you do need to be paying attention to it, because growth rates in connected devices and data transmitted are likely to be exponential rather than linear and it will affect (or intrude into) just about every aspect of your life.
It’s definitely on the mind of the business community, as opportunity and threat rolled into one. The Internet of Things was the subject of multiple sessions at a recent conference put on by the Center for Advanced Manufacturing Puget Sound. “The ability to access data and transform data into information and then use that information to react to things, we’re just getting started,” said Bill Hill, chief executive of Bellevue-based Western Integrated Technologies.
The opportunities lie in making the entire supply chain, from raw material producer to end customer, faster, more efficient and more responsive when changes are needed. There also is an opportunity for local companies to develop the products, processes and services that make the Internet of Things do useful work.
The threats lie in theft of data, information and intellectual property, and in being so overwhelmed with data that it doesn’t tell anyone anything useful.
Security is by far the biggest threat, not just to businesses but to the concept of a world in which devices are talking to one another.
“Everybody involved in (Internet of Things) understands that without security, it dies,” Hill said. “They’re pretty committed to staying alive. I think we’re going to see some wholesale changes and upgrades to security in the next five years. Because without that, none of this works.”
Tacoma will find itself in the thick of the Internet-of-Things discussion, and not just because of the concentration of businesses locally that will be interested in it. Municipalities are making extensive use of smart connected devices for everything from parking garages to trash receptacles. A story in Fast Company noted that some cities have “integrated a building’s rainwater catchment system with software that uses weather predictions from the Internet to know when a basin should be partly emptied to accommodate incoming stormwater.” That sounds exactly like the sort of application Tacoma’s initiative in clean-water technology will be playing with.
To make it work, though, you need a network, which brings us to a lingering local issue — what to do with Click. It’s more than a cable-TV operation, although that’s where most of the attention has fallen. Remember that the original underlying premise of a municipal fiber optic network was to monitor and control operations of the city’s electric transmission and distribution grid; data exchange will be even more crucial if the long-promised smart grid of distributed generation and extensive use of renewables is to become a reality.
The Internet of Things is already here, in your business, your car, your home. You should be thinking more about what you want it to do ... and not do. The good news is, since your refrigerator is now handling the grocery store run, you’ll have more time to do so.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.