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What Is The Internet Of Things & How Will It Affect Our Future

It seems like there are new buzzwords popping up and dying off with each day that passes us by, and “the Internet of Things” just happens to be one of the more recent ideas that has people excited. The term itself is somewhat vague, though, and there’s a lot of misconception floating around regarding the exact nature of this Internet of Things. What is it exactly and why should you care?
Well, because the Internet of Things is inevitable – from the way things are progressing, as long as you remain on this earth, you won’t be able to escape it. That sounds a lot more ominous than it really is, but it’s no different than how far the Internet itself has come. It’s practically impossible to totally avoid the Internet and the Internet of Things is nothing more than the next logical step in the evolution of that mass connectivity.
Since you can’t escape it, you might as well know what it’s all about. Still sound vague to you? Let’s hop right in and start probing the concept and we’ll see how it’ll affect us years down the line.

What Is the ‘Internet Of Things’?

Right now, the Internet is mainly operated by humans. Of course, you have miles of fiber optic cabling and millions of routers around the world directing Internet traffic and hundreds of server farms and datacenters that are crunching numbers for optimal service. But when you get down to the core of it, the Internet is a person-to-person network and the electronics are merely there to facilitate that network.
The Internet would be nothing without humans. What good is a blog without a blogger? What good are forums without members? Video games without players? Streams without watchers? Torrents without downloaders? Social networks without a society? Nearly every aspect of modern connectivity is by people for people.

And this connectivity is great. Petabytes of data pass through the tubes of the Internet on a daily basis and we’ve never been more interconnected as a global society than before. But the downside, at least right now, is that very little of this data can be processed quickly and efficiently. Humans just can’t match the computational capabilities of an electronic device. That’s where the Internet of Things comes in.
The Internet of Things is a network of multiple devices that communicate with each other without human involvement. This device-to-device communication mostly involves the collection of data and the processing of that data so that said devices can make their own decisions and act accordingly. Hence the name: Internet (connectivity) of Things (devices).

What Is It Useful For?

Again, I’m sure all of that sounds eerily similar to any number of movies that feature a robots-turn-on-humans plot, but there are some real-life applications of this concept that can truly advance modern society.
One of the common scenarios used to advocate the Internet of Things involves prescription medication. Medication often needs to be taken at specific intervals in order to be effective and forgetting to take a pill can be anything from an annoyance to life-threatening. Suppose pill bottles were equipped with a mini-device that could tell when you’ve forgotten to take a pill and subsequently sends out an SMS, email, or phone call to remind you?

How about a more mundane example: electrical efficiency. An electric company could install upgrades to their grid that process electricity usage and that data could be used by appliances to determine the best times to run, i.e., times when the electrical grid is low in demand. If every household participated in this type of “smart electricity,” the reduction in grid stress could prove extremely beneficial for operating costs and environmental sustainability.
The Internet of Things can be applied on a larger scale as well – for example, traffic management. If a city’s infrastructure was expanded to include roadside sensors, that data could be used to analyze traffic patterns around the city and dynamically adjust traffic light operations to minimize, or even eliminate, jams and chokepoints.

What Does It Mean For Us?

The Internet of Things is a simple concept that only requires three things to function:
  • A way for devices to be interconnected,
  • A way for devices to gather data,
  • A way for devices to process that data and make decisions accordingly.
This interconnectivity has huge implications for efficiency and automation as discussed above. When utilized properly, this no-humans-involved sort of self-device-management frees us up to spend our time elsewhere. In the future, maybe it’ll save us as little as a few minutes per day or as much as several hours per day, but all of it adds up to big gains in the long run.
There are a few dangers and cautions that we should be aware of, though.

As always, data security is extremely important. Device-to-device communication is all good and dandy until a human decides to spoof part of that connection and remotely hijack a device for malicious purposes. This isn’t a huge problem for something like device-regulated home temperature, but losing control of city-wide traffic could spell disaster.
And then there are device malfunctions. We all know how software and hardware can both be buggy, and sometimes those bugs are quite major. With regard to the Internet of Things, buggy hardware (errors in data collection) and buggy software (errors in data processing) can throw massive wrenches into the large systems that future generations may grown to depend on.
And let’s not forget the issue of ubiquitous information, especially as we reflect on the recent PRISM scandal. Maybe the widespread collection and processing of data is something that we shouldn’t pursue, even if under the promise of a more efficient, more convenient life tomorrow. If it does end up coming back and biting us in the rear somewhere down the line, we’ll be feeling it for ages to come.         
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