“It is the start of something big. We’re only in the foothills just now.”
In October last year, representatives from some of the world’s largest technology companies, including Microsoft and IBM, met at the University of Strathclyde, under the auspices of the third annual CENSIS summit. CENSIS, the Innovation for Sensor and Imaging Systems, was launched in April 2013, which a view to bridging the gap between “cutting-edge innovation and industrial uptake north of the border”, and improving awareness of the so-called ‘Internet of Things’.
“I think society needs to waken up to the tremendous force for good that the Internet of Things represents,” said CENSIS chairman Bob Downes, “but I worry there is too much fear about it”. This concern is certainly justifiable, given that a recent survey by PwC found “a majority of consumers” currently lack an interest in IoT, or are “unaware of its benefits”, and given that suppliers have “a short timeframe in which to win the hearts and minds of consumers and turn smart [IoT] technology into a sustainable revenue stream”, as the PwC study concluded, it is imperative that recognition of IoT improves among consumers and companies alike.
So what is the IoT and why does it matter?
According to Matthew Evans, IoT Programme Director at techUK, “the Internet of Things is made up of devices - from simple sensors to smartphones and wearables - connected together”. In practical terms, this means that an increasing number of “dumb items” - be it toasters, washing machines, or dog collars - are being connected to the web and “talking” to one another. By connecting these, once-humble, devices to automated systems, it is possible to “gather information, analyse it, and create in action” (Wired, 2017), ostensibly providing users with an improved experience, relevant information, or heightened efficiency.
The sprawl of the IoT hasn’t been without its detractors and one of the most common complaints is simply “just because something can be connected to the internet, that doesn’t mean it should be”. However, its proponents are quick to point to the innumerable benefits - economic and individual - which the rapid expansion of IoT could deliver. In industrial settings, for example, the further use of sensor technology is likely to have a very positive impact both economically and ecologically - reducing waste and increasing output. Similarly, from a safety perspective, there are huge advantages, such as those demonstrated by Concrete Sensors - an American company which has created a device which is inserted into concrete to provide ongoing information regarding the material’s condition.
With regards to the consumer, the most visible and immediate benefit of the IoT is convenience, as exemplified by Amazon’s much-discussed “Dash” instant-order buttons. Over the coming decade, a growing number of households will have access to automatically self-replacing “smart” toilet paper and, while anyone who has read Asimov will be forgiven for shivering slightly at this mundanely dystopian thought, the majority of shoppers will gladly welcome the ease.
Despite the various criticisms which have been levelled against the IoT, its expansion seems inevitable, with one estimate (Datafloq) claiming that it will comprise of nearly 40 billion connected devices in the not-too-distant future. Equally, the economic possibilities associated with the Internet of Things are undeniable, as evidenced by a recent Gartner study which predicted that the aggregated value of the IoT will exceed $1.9 trillion in 2020 alone. Indeed, as analysts at McKinsey & Company argued in both 2010 and 2012, the only limiting factor to growth in this area will be the lack of “appropriately skilled staff”.