Imagine a world where all of your devices are connected. Your alarm clock alerts your coffee maker to start brewing a fresh cup in the morning. Your printer automatically purchases new ink on your Amazon account when it notices the levels are running low. Your lawnmower alerts you when it is time to undergo maintenance before it runs into problems. This is what the internet-of-things (IoT) is attempting to create. A world where devices and computers are all connected to improve the lives of people, while at the same time improving efficiency and processes in the business world.

The allure of connecting devices of all shapes and sizes excites those who are technologically savvy. But this technology is also difficult to comprehend, and use, for those of an older age demographic. Add on growing security concerns, and IoT still has a way to go, even if it is already used regularly in daily life. 

What is IoT?

The internet-of-things (IoT) attempts to connect all physical objects in the world to the internet. If an object has an On/Off switch, it has the potential to be connected to the internet and, in turn, become a part of an IoT network. Doing so gives consumers and businesses more control over objects, as well as insights and data related to the object, like the object’s temperature, physical location, and other data points. In order to collect data, objects are equipped with sensors that can track their movements and other important data. This data is then sent to other devices to analyze information and make better decisions based on the real-time information being collected. 

Experimentation with IoT first began back in the 1980s. Several graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University wanted to create a way to track the contents of a vending machine from a remote location to know when that vending machine was out-of-stock of a particular product. This way, students wouldn’t have to take a trip to the vending machine to know if it was stocked with their favorite snacks and drinks. The students attached sensors to the machine which would determine the inventory levels of each product, and hooked those sensors into an internet network to track the inventory changes from anywhere. The experiment was a resounding success among students. One of the creators of this technology remembers, “After a while, it became standard procedure to check the status of the Coke machine before you’d go downstairs because you wanted to make sure you got the coldest Coke available.”

What started out as collecting data from one vending machine has grown exponentially, and the IoT market is expected to hit $318 billion by 2023. Every day, more and more objects are being connected to the internet, thus building on the growing IoT networks already available. The implication of IoT are massive. Since each device on an IoT network can communicate with each other, there is potential to grow expansive networks of interrelated objects that work in harmony together to improve inefficiencies and identify problems like never before.

Endless Uses

Checking the inventory levels on vending machines was just the tip of the iceberg, and there were many more uses of IoT that were developed in the decades to come. Let’s look at a few basic IoT examples that already exist:

There have been relatively few innovations to the standard desk lamp over the decades. Sure, “The Clapper” made it easy to turn your lamp on from across the room, but it has remained more of a gimmick than anything. Today, consumers can use IoT technology to connect their lamp to smart home devices such as the Amazon Alexa. Doing so allows users to not only turn on a lamp with a simple voice command; they can dim the light to a certain level, or even change the lighting color if they desire. This is just one example of many home applications for IoT, which cover everything from smart thermostats to home security systems.

Connected cars are some of the most widely talked about IoT uses. These vehicles act as a big computer, helping drivers to stream music, dictate texts, and even park hands-free. Eventually, it is hoped that this will lead to a world where vehicles will be driven autonomously, and drivers will have the luxury of sitting back and enjoying the ride, and IoT is driving this charge. IoT technology helps relay information about GPS location, road conditions, and traffic to help an autonomous vehicle map its course and stay safe on the road.

Similarly to connected cars, driverless forklifts are helping improve efficiency in warehouses around the globe. These forklifts can identify what objects need moving based on directives from staff, and can even avoid collisions based on sensing the distance of other objects in space. The new smart warehouse will not just be equipped with autonomous forklifts, but also sensors retrofitted for shelves to detect inventory levels, and wearable devices for employees to track their health on the job. IoT is one of the ways Amazon is staying ahead of its competitors, as it develops connected robotic solutions for its massive warehouses.

IoT Could Help the Elderly, But Only If They Can Use It

For many, IoT is an exciting concept which could revolutionize the way we interact with the objects around us. Yet, for others, it’s an intimidating idea that seems more like science fiction than reality. 

As the technology exists today, it still requires setup and installation, which is a major roadblock to adoption by those with less technological skills. Additionally, connected devices aren’t always easy to use. These issues were highlighted by Editor in Chief at New Relic, Inc. Fredric Paul:

“No matter how simple it may seem to speak to an Amazon Echo: “Alexa, play some classical music,” it often turns out to be more complicated than that. What if you can’t remember the name of the song you want to hear? Alexa and her screenless ilk don’t make it easy to thumb through your CD or vinyl collection for inspiration. And if something goes wrong with the connection, troubleshooting a voice-activated device can quickly become a Kafka-esque ordeal.”

Interestingly enough, this technology which is so scary and intimidating, could provide immense benefits to the elderly population. There are a slew of healthcare applications for IoT devices to aid in the healthcare and quality of life for those who are aging. As much as voice-controlled systems can be hard to use, things like ordering toilet paper or groceries with just a few words would drastically improve the lives of many who have difficulty with these tasks otherwise. Connected devices can also accurately dispense medication on a daily basis or even predict the risk of falling in adults 65 and older. 

Security Concerns

Putting more devices on the internet creates more points of attack for hackers and malicious actors. Security breaches of IoT devices and networks are a major concern for experts in the industry. Unfortunately, IoT security is not yet up to snuff. In fact, according to one study, 48% of companies which use IoT don’t have any system in place to determine if they have been hacked.

Stories of previous hacks to IoT network feel like they are straight out of a horror movie. 

The largest distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack in history, which brought down much of the internet, was attributed to malware infected via IoT devices. Because the malware could search for connected devices, it was able to take control of an estimated 100,000 devices to pull off the attack. 

Think your IoT connected car is safe? You might want to think again. In a display of the vulnerabilities of IoT devices, hackers took control of a Jeep vehicle and drove it off the road with a reporter still inside (the reporter was not injured, and knew the attack was forthcoming). Hackers were able to manipulate the car’s steering, breaks, radio, and anything else they wanted. This is a scary prospect for anyone driving a connected car on the road today.

Other attacks might seem small, but also display security concerns for IoT technology. In Finland, hackers were able to cut the heat of two apartment buildings in November. Some companies have had their connected printers hacked, making it easy for hackers to obtain sensitive documents.

Outside of blatant attacks, hackers are also able to breach the privacy of IoT device users. By hacking into IoT devices, sensitive personal data and information can be released. But it might not even take hacking to release such information, as seen in a recent court case where IoT data from a Fitbit device was used to charge a man for murder.

There are a few ways IoT device users can protect themselves from such vulnerabilities. Taking precautionary measures, such as encrypting device data and running a secured network, are good places to start. Additionally, ensuring protection against physical tampering is key. The more access points for physical devices to enter the network, the easier it is for the network to become infected it with malicious code or viruses. Limiting these access points as much as possible reduces this risk considerably.

Conclusion

The average consumer already lives a life full of connected IoT devices. Cell phones, cars, and smart speakers are just some of these uses which already exist, laying the groundwork for a future of even more connection between devices in daily life. On the business side, IoT has created new and improved warehouses to run at maximum efficiency. For now, it appears even heightened security concerns aren’t enough to stop the momentum of IoT technology toward a world where everything is connected.