How the internet of things will affect our future
Luke Walsh – “In 2016 I gave a presentation at Liverpool’s
John Moores Universityi. I was talking to the next generation of engineers about
what their jobs might look like and trends which are going to shape the way
engineering evolves as industry moves forward into this 4th
revolution. The tone of my original talk was quite light and fun, but there are
some serious and business critical implications behind the conclusions that
warrant discussing further.”
IoT, the Internet of Things is a buzzword that has been
bandied about for some time. In the last year it was one of those phrases that
was slapped on just about everything, whether or not it was really relevant. I
think we all realise that it will be important and that we should be working
towards IoT, but there is still a lot of confusion about what it really means
and how it works in practice. What is our IoT world really going to look like?
Let’s imagine the good, the bad and the unfortunate for a
You start the day gently awoken at 7:29am by your Sleep monitoring
Garmin smart watch which detects your circadian cycle and wakes you knowing the
time you wish to rise and your optimal sleep requirement.
You go into the bathroom and stand on your Withings weighing
scales which shares data with Tesco. It changes your next shopping order to low
sugar biscuits. But you are doing well with your tooth brush, its sent you a
voucher for a free clean and polish as a reward for brushing three times daily
for the last month.
You drive to work in your Tesla self-drive electric car
which communicates with Microsoft office assistant to reschedule a morning
meeting because the car has detected slow moving traffic ahead.
At work – the machines on the production line advise you
that a motor is about to fail, but not to worry an advance replacement is
automatically on the way from RS Components.
Your watch buzzed at mid-day to remind you that you had set
a goal this week to walk half an hour at lunch time each day. This will help
reduce your life insurance premium automatically if you continue with this for
Back at work in the afternoon your production monitoring
also informs you that when Bob is running the night shift you have more
productive periods than when Jim is in charge.
Maybe it’s time to fire Jim? the government has a feed on
your data and therefore already knows you’re considering this, and has
pre-emptively mailed Jim with recruitment advice.
Half an hour from home your car notifies your NEST
thermostat that you are on the way so it puts the heating on. You step out of
our car and it automatically opens the garage, parks itself and charges the
battery when electricity is cheapest by communicating with the national grid.
Your bathroom scales added healthy fish to your menu so
whilst cooking dinner you change the level of room fragrance using the Febreeze
IOT app on your phone. However, the scales haven’t overridden your order of
beer and wine and your IoT fridge has snitched on you to your health provider.
They have dispatched a test kit for liver health – maybe you won’t get that
insurance discount after all.
Is this really the future of the Internet of Things?
In this imagined ‘day in the life of’ we are using a fairly
broad definition of the internet of things; any device that can connect out to
the internet and can monitor and/or control something. For instance, Google
Nest is an example of something already on the market that fits this definition
of IoT. It connects via Wi-Fi to sensors monitoring temperature and can send a
command to the heating system to adjust the radiators. So, the signals, the
communication, is over the internet but the control and outcome is a real world
‘thing’ (not virtual). Of course, the utopian scenario is that this automation
enhances our lives, but there are some legitimate concerns and some seemingly
bizarre potential repercussions.
It takes a while for any new technology to find its way in
to our day to day lives, for the kinks and bugs to be worked out and to get to
the real usefulness of it. Until we get to a certain point, with enough IoT
applications deployed to get real data, we are speculating about the potential
impact, both the positive and negative.
Gartner Hype Cycle
So, in the Gartner hype cycle1 we are somewhere between the
peak of inflated expectation and heading for the tough of disillusionment.
Having embraced smartphone technology most people are receptive to add-ons that
they can control from their phones, but not every product on the market is
going beyond the novelty factor to add real value to our lives. For the
traditionally conservative industrial market there is still much scepticism that
the benefits of IoT will outweigh issues of set up cost or security. But that
is changing as engineers realise the enormous potential of IoT for industry. Gartner’s
much publicised prediction is that the number of things connected “will reach
20.8 billion by 2020”. They also predicted that whilst the majority of
connected ‘things’ will be on the consumer side, that more money will be spent by
enterprise or business.
The industrial internet of things and the term Industry 4.0
or the 4th industrial revolution, are often used interchangeably. More
accurately Industry 4.0 encompasses IoT, but also goes beyond to describe a
broader integrated and optimised approach to manufacturing. As such Industry
4.0 is strongly connected to big data, which will be supplied in no small part
by internet enabled things. The development of the processing power and storage
needed to manage large scale data has been an important step towards enabling the
next generation of commercial IoT applications. But it doesn’t have to be big
data, most IoT applications start with ‘small data’. It could be as simple as measuring
up time on a machine to infer its power usage.
To update an old cliché, data is power. In tough economic
times businesses can’t afford to waste money and must make expenditure
decisions based on real information rather than anecdotal evidence. Of course,
the production line, born as it was from a need for increased efficiency and
productivity has been subject to numerous improvements over the years. Lean
manufacturing, the Toyota way, six sigma and the like all start with measuring
processes in order to identify waste. The larger and more complex the production
set up gets, the more diverse and numerous sources and points of waste become.
It is amazing how a few mis-timed seconds in one part of a factory can cause
major disruption down the line and thus cost the business. But how much does it
cost? Enough to make a change? Change what?
We may be dealing with an age-old problem but the cost and
availability of the technology to solve it has changed dramatically and it’s
one of the ways IoT will contribute to Industry 4.0.
IoT combined with big data doesn’t just enable us to make
sense of large amounts of data it can also put it into context and combined
with the right applications presents insight that can lead to significant cost
It is at this application stage that engineers will see the
biggest shift in their profession, with a merging of mechatronics, software and
network IT skills. With hindsight, we might look back and say of course the Internet
of Things meant the integration of internet and thing, the hands on and the virtual,
blue and white collar, but we are currently just beginning to realise how the
skills profile of our workforce will need to develop. We have software
engineers who program and can visualise what to do with data, but don’t
necessarily know how to get at that data, what needs physically wiring in. Then
we have engineers who understand the equipment and can install the hardware to
get the signals out of the machines, but lack the ability to get that data into
a useful format or presentable for management. Bridging the gap between the
levels of data will form a key part of the Industry 4.0 transition.
So IoT is offering a way to see our production lines. Data
is already there, being generated by machines already installed. At level one we have raw signals generated by
our machines, on/off, high/low. The second level assigns a value to each state,
e.g. if the fan and light are on the machine is running. At the third level of
data we start to make it useful to us and we are generating some statistics,
such as, if we record the time the machine is running we can report the uptime
across a shift. At the fourth level, we are monitoring uptime over time and
getting to insights that enable improvements.
If we think back to our imaginary IoT day and poor Jim who
we were about to fire. Looking at our integrated data we can see on Jim’s shift
more essential maintenance was performed, decreasing his output, but reducing
breakdowns for the following shifts. Overall Jim is contributing a better performance
Obviously, there could be many reasons why maintenance is
happening on Jim’s shift but not on Bob’s and it is critical we don’t jump to
conclusions. Our handling of data will need to become increasingly
sophisticated. Particularly as we unlock large amounts of information and
bombard ourselves with statistics it will be challenging to make the right
An example I gave to the students was about a drug which
diagnoses a disease accurately 99% of the time. However, in a population where
only 1% of the people have the disease, the 1% false positive actually results
in an 20% misdiagnosis. Work through the maths and you’ll see something which
sounds acceptable at first would be disastrous in real life. Another famous
example is the case of the missing bullet holes2. The story goes when planes
returned to base in WW2 the engineers would look at where the bullet holes were
and reinforce those parts of the aircraft. It wasn’t until someone realised it
was the planes that didn’t make it home that had the holes they really needed
to see that they could make the right improvement.
These examples show how we need to ask the right questions
and understand the response we get. What we haven’t yet reached with the
Internet of Things and what might be some way off, is leaving the response to
that top level of insight to an automated system. Ultimately, we shouldn’t feel
removed from our systems but more connected to them. In the best scenarios, the
interface, the application and the hardware work together so that they and not
you are the invisible part. We may never want to relinquish decision making
control; it is important that IoT and Industry 4.0 work for us at the level we
The comedy illustration for the downside of autonomous IoT
systems is the hacked fridge. Whilst the image of hackers sat in dark basements
trying to disrupt our Ocado order or that out white goods will be in cahoots
with a nanny state over our beverage consumption is amusing, but if you
substitute fridge for mission critical piece of equipment it becomes an industrial
One of the most frequent concerns we hear is security.
Amazon’s Echo ordering from your TV’s adverts is inconvenient, the idea your
conversations or private data are visible to third parties is a corporate disaster.
At one point Windows 10 automatically shared your Wi-Fi passwords with your
contacts3. Samsung issued a press release in 2016 asking their customers not to
have private conversations in front of their Samsung Smart TVs4. A feature that
was conceived as an enhancement to make life easier is in practice clearly an
undesirable security risk.
But security has always been an issue. For companies large
and small, in the virtual and real world there are countless examples where we
have got it wrong. (Check out human hacker Jenny Radcliffe talking about how she breaks into banks for a livingi). Naturally with the internet our errors and breaches can be
on a global scale which brings an understandable level of caution.
Thus, we need to think carefully about what needs to be IoT
enabled, remembering true IoT is more than just networked equipment, but layers
of automation and autonomy. What permissions and privacy do we need? Who are we
trusting to deliver this IoT data to us? For the majority of companies an
in-house custom solution will be prohibitively expensive, leaving most of us to
rely on third parties and off the shelf offerings. Using IoT systems may carry
the possibility of cyber-attack just as we may lock our doors and still get
burgled. We take reasonable precautions relative to what we are protecting and
the same common sense should apply to network or cloud security. However, In the physical world when
there is a robbery, the liability is reasonably clear: we have insurance to
cover us against damage and loss. In the virtual world who is at fault? The
device manufacturer? The operating system vendor? The cloud provider? Should we
insure against any breaches? Should we disclose breaches? Do our customers have
a right to know if their data has been comprised? Should we insure against
breach? Who with?
It is up to engineers to collaborate with software
developers, system administrators and network architects to mitigate the risks
and start designing the infrastructure of tomorrows IoT world today.
1Van der Meulen, R. (2015). Gartner Says 6.4 Billion Connected “Things” Will Be in Use in 2016, Up 30 Percent From 2015. Available: http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/3165317. Last accessed 10th January 2017.
2Ellenberg, J. (2014). How not to be wrong. Available: http://www.rigb.org/blog/2014/june/how-not-to-be-wrong. Last accessed 10th January 2017.
3Winder, D. (2015). Windows 10: Wi-Fi Sense makes no security sense at all. Available: http://www.itpro.co.uk/security/25048/windows-10-wi-fi-sense-makes-no-security-sense-at-all. Last accessed 10th January 2017.
4De Souza, R. (2016). Be careful of what you say in front our Smart TV, warns Samsung. Available: https://www.hackread.com/samsung-smart-tv-listening-conversations/. Last accessed 10th January 2017.
Greenberg, A. (2015). Hackers remotely kill a jeep
on the highway – with me in it. Available:
https://www.wired.com/2015/07/hackers-remotely-kill-jeep-highway. Last accessed
10th January 2017.
Mathews, L. (2013). Smart toilet security flaw
could leave you with a soggy bottom. Available: http://www.geek.com/android/smart-toilet-security-flaw-could-leave-you-with-a-soggy-bottom-1564411/.
Last accessed 10th January 2017.
Ross, E. (2016). Baby monitors ‘hacked’:
Parents warned to be vigilant after voices heard coming from speakers. Available:
Last accessed 10th January 2017.
iWatch the original talk: https://youtu.be/c4C89L4hiK0
iiPeople hacking: https://youtu.be/-j6Y0U0e240