IoT: Finding the true value

IoT UK logoCopy of an article first appearing on the IoTUK blog.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) recently hosted a day of presentations at the British Library discussing both their previous work, as well as their future plans for the Digital Economy and ICT research programmes within the UK.

Professor of Software Systems Engineering, Anthony Finkelstein, of University College London, took the opportunity to highlight the importance of understanding how technology is embedding itself within society, as well as the social and economic drivers underpinning its adoption. He also reflected on what the role of technology means for the trajectory of future research.

The current narrative around IoT is primarily focused around the technology’s great promise, but first we need to better understand how these technologies need to be shaped so they can be successfully embedded into everyday life.

The issue with casually referring to all emerging solutions simply as the ‘Internet of Things’ is the term is too generic; the emerging solutions need to be much more clearly contextualised in order to understand their opportunities and challenges.

graphThe emergence of the term IoT reflects the growing realisation that with the continued reduction in the cost of processing, storage and communications, we can add an ‘online’ existence to an ever increasing range of everyday objects, where it was previously the preserve of more specialised niches.

As with many technologies as costs decrease, we begin to see a migration from military and scientific uses to more commercial and increasingly consumer applications.

So, to be clear we’ve been putting “things” online for years:
  •  Researchers demonstrating how crazy the internet could be in the early 1990s placed coke machines, coffee pots and toasters on the Internet. Amusement value aside, these provocations lead to more serious research on what happens when things are connected. This research started in the mid-90s when the US government funded a massive programme of wireless sensor networks with applications as far afield as fire suppression systems on battleships to ecological monitoring.
  • The invention of the humble RFID tag dates back to the earliest “identity friend or foe” systems for World War Two aircrafts, which would respond to a radio frequency ping with an identifier. This led to one of the first low cost means to track objects and was widely adopted in manufacturing across supply chain management and in protecting high value products from theft.
  • The definition of the Universal Product Code (UPC) allowed the addition of tracking to objects at near zero marginal cost through printed barcodes, it enabled shops to track inventory, deploy laser scanners for faster checkouts and most recently enable self checkout by mapping the UPC to the products weight to ensure only “expected items in the bagging area”.
  • Indoor locative technology was originally developed at the Olivetti Research Laboratory, which caused controversy in some quarters by tracking people. This technology is now the basis of many successful deployments of technology from Ubisense (founded 2002), which has been adopted by over 50 companies including high tech manufacturing businesses such as BMW and Airbus.
The value in each of these examples is clear but so too are the challenges. Rather than making a sweeping statement about how “IoT has privacy challenges” we can get down to the detail and determine the risks and mitigations associated with how this technology is used.

For example in the early 2000s RFID uses became controversial (e.g. RFID in Razors packs) leading to the RFID Privacy Impact Assessment Framework ratified in 2011 as a model for co-regulation by government and industry.

Just because a product falls under the term ‘The Internet of Things’ does not mean it will automatically transform our lives. Let’s take the ‘smart fridge’[1]. While there has been talk about how it is going to change our domestic food inventory and offer us new dining experiences, we should first question and understand its true consumer value, work through the security and privacy issues and determine whether there is a market for this, or if it is merely a technical flight of fancy, another smart gadget for the home.

[1] Addendum: apparently it's not a 'smart fridge' it's "a sophisticated multi-tasker that reconnects families, organizes groceries and home tasks, and provides entertainment".

Written on January 8, 2016