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The Internet of Things: Where are we so slowly heading?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Melpomene / Shutterstock)

We set our hopes on IoT more than on anything else nowadays. Some of the benefits we expect from it include better control of systems, more real-time data about them, and a greater number of decisions the smart devices can make when interacting with each other. Juniper Research predicts that the number of devices and sensors constituting the Internet of Things will reach 50 billion by 2022. That’s a little more than six devices per user.

The enthusiasm of those who rely on a breakthrough potential of this ecosystem is astonishing. This enthusiasm makes people disregard the technological restrictions that may slow down the anticipated changes in everyday life, business, and IT. Are we approaching a triumph of the fourth industrial revolution? Maybe we are, except that we will have to go through quite a few transitional stages, such as pre-revolution v3.4.5 and the like.

The force of things

There is a tremendous unbridged gap in society when it comes to tech-savviness. Some people got on the digital hype train when they were already adults. Moreover, they did it with a smartphone in their hands, having skipped the old school Web addiction phase, and being clueless about how to take a screenshot on a PC. The others feel bitter about the slow progress of humanity in terms of reaching the technological singularity.

It seems those who fall into the latter category cannot possibly be thrilled by any cutting-edge futuristic concepts. They’ll casually react by saying, “Yup, this is how it’s gonna be pretty soon.” In the context of IoT, such an optimistic approach reaches impressive heights.

According to recent findings of PwC, which surveyed representatives of different societal clusters (not geeks only), people are expecting to wear clothes with a permanent Internet connection by 2025. Those surveyed believe that about 10 per cent of people will be definitely wearing something like that. Frankly, pants with a connectivity feature aren’t likely to bring any benefits to their owners, are they?

Researchers at Frost & Sullivan consulting firm say the sales of self-driving cars will reach 36 million by the same year. The strange thing is that the analysts are utterly certain that this is going to be the case as if we were already living in the future, and this is a fact rather than a prediction.

That is not to say that a bevy of IoT solutions has become entirely vanilla, garden-variety things. For instance, smart grids have been deployed around the world for several years now. These systems allow for optimising the performance of the power grids proper. Combined with high-quality logistics, this mechanism raises the cost-efficiency of the power supply chain by responding to emergencies or tweaking parameters “on the fly.”

It comes as no surprise that there are experts who realised the huge potential of the Internet of Things quite a while ago. As professionals, these people should probably question every theory they come across, and yet they are absolutely convinced that IoT will shape up to be one of the essential technologies of the near future. Innumerable sensors, along with various wearable gadgets, will become a sort of nervous system of the territory we populate. People like to peek into the future, and they often consider any restrictions to be petty from a technical perspective. This could be a fallacy, though.

Smart things of the century

Bernd Gross, senior VP at Software AG, says that up to a half of IoT startups fail. The main reason is that their creators underestimate the overall cohesion of the infrastructure they are planning to deal with and the range of technologies underlying success.

There are also plenty of obstacles in IoT at the level of the technological ecosystem. Unless addressed, these obstacles will cause futuristic predictions to remain in the realm of mere predictions. Participants of tech conferences often dwell on what they believe the digital future will be like. Here’s a couple of interesting scenarios.

Agriculture

Imagine a small, yet technically sophisticated farm from 2030 – maybe a little less intelligent farm than the one depicted in the “Blade Runner 2049” movie. The entirety of its technological infrastructure elements are connected and operate as a whole: from sensors that calculate the optimal watering schemes (in fact, these already exist, e.g., CropX) to a perimeter security control centre covering both the physical and network layers. While being connected to the public power grid, the farm boasts a certain degree of autonomy in this regard as it additionally gets electricity from wind turbines and solar panels of its own.

Suppose in some cases, such as good weather conditions or relatively idle functioning of the farm, the amount of power generated by on-premise mechanisms exceeds the amount required for proper work. The intelligent system will supply the redundant power to the public grid during these periods. In return, the farm gets an appropriate number of kilowatt-hours from the distribution centre to be consumed in the future; or it obtains some type of cryptocurrency, given that all transactions are instantly logged at a blockchain platform. What’s more, this cryptocurrency will be an industrial unit of value used by the whole agriculture sector. For instance, it could also be earned by selling goods, or converted to a certain universal value coin applicable for any commercial deals.

It goes without saying that all these workflows will be completely automated, with human involvement still being an option where appropriate. Artificial intelligence adjusted to meet the farm owner’s needs will calculate and supervise the business processes. It will figure out when and how much electricity-borne money to transfer to a bank account, or it may recommend early payoff of a loan obtained for purchasing wind turbines and solar panels or their maintenance. Of course, these renewable energy sources will also be equipped with sensors that keep tabs on their operation and depreciation.

Furthermore, in case the farm’s functioning is so fine-tuned that it outperforms the neighboring ones by specific benchmarks, such as land productivity or energy efficiency, AI will file an application to get a patent for this set of techniques. Depending on the proprietor’s choice, the system will either keep this patent as private know-how, or it may sell it to competitors for the value coins mentioned above.

Ecommerce

Let’s travel to 2030 once again. I’m wearing a connected jacket, whose chip is engaged (among other things) in assisting the algorithmic calculations for the Tesla self-driving car project and thereby earns me money to pay 0.05 per cent of my lifelong learning loan every month. So, this apparel has become digitally “worn and torn” over time. It keeps generating alerts, sometimes with a “red” severity level, telling me that the jacket’s hardware is exhausted and it’s time to consider buying a new one.

To top it off, the exoskeleton I use for landscape morphing (that’s my VR hobby, by the way), which was a birthday gift from my friends, needs a replacement of a critical node. Thankfully, its maintenance sensors let me know about the issue in advance, saving me from a denial of service when I’m holding a rock weighing a ton.

If I decide to pay for a new jacket and the module replacement right away, this information will merge into a single query and go to an eCommerce hub that offers me the biggest discount. I can opt for purchasing the merchandise now, or I’ll do it in a few days and save some extra money. I know it because the node for my exoskeleton is produced using a 3D printer, and the publicly available details about the printer’s load allow my home AI accounting system to see that the device will process a maximum of orders similar to mine in three days. It means that production optimisation also will come into play, reducing the cost of every separate part. These “co-purchases 3.0” will be, essentially, based on contemporary programmatic advertising.

As soon as the order is ready, a delivery drone will reach out to my smartwatch, requesting the most convenient timeframe for me to receive the package and the period when the drone traffic is the lowest in my region. As simple as ABC!

It’s only smooth in theory

Sounds great? It does. Is it feasible? Probably yes, but with a bunch of caveats. In fact, pretty much all of these technologies are being used and combined in some form nowadays. However, there are numerous hurdles you will stumble upon when trying to implement the ostensibly practicable fantasies like the ones above. Moreover, all of these obstacles are fairly trivial.

  • Smart things consume a great deal of power

The more complex IoT entities are, the more power they require to operate. Many of these gadgets and sensors are intended to work autonomously. Aside from that, as the connectivity and the number of smart devices grows, so does the number of M2M (machine to machine) connections that require extra expenditures. Solar panels and suchlike technologies don’t fully address the issue. Smart gadgets will still need higher capacity batteries anyway.

Meanwhile, the modern wireless connection standards, from GPRS to Wi-Fi, presuppose quite a bit of energy consumption, too. Industry players believe 5G deployment will become a game-changer, but it’s very unlikely to go mainstream in the next few years, to put it mildly. The 3GPP organization has added IoT support to the existing LTE based cellular networks (discontinuous reception – DRX, power-saving mode – PSM, etc.). It appears, though, that these measures seek to provide a status quo rather than incentivise a boom of the IoT ecosystem.

  • Scrappy adoption of IoT

On the one hand, the race of standards and solutions in the IoT environment should help the most promising and viable ones come to the fore. On the other, this diversity thwarts connectivity, which is expected to call forth ground-breaking changes in the IT world and our everyday lives. To begin with, there are plenty of base protocols in the industry being separately developed, and this doesn’t only apply to the popular NB-IoT, LoRaWAN, and 6LoWPAN. The further this trend gets, the more difficult it will be to reach protocol compatibility unless major industry players team-up.

  • Economic benefits

The progress of any technology depends on the financial output stemming from it. At this point, a component basis of an arbitrary IoT system may turn out too expensive to maintain, so it won’t yield a return on investment even in a long-term perspective. Another nuance is that a system may only produce the expected economic effect as long as it works “at scale,” that is when it reaches global popularity with millions of devices being used.

The list can go on and on. There are many more hurdles as if each item above weren’t enough. Anyway, perhaps more powerful batteries will be invented in the near future. It’s also within the realms of possibility that governments will allocate additional frequencies for LTE networks. We may be able to teach machine learning platforms to foresee the way in advance when exactly the nodes of a particular local IoT system need tech support and based on that, pick the optimal time for cost-efficient maintenance.

In the meantime, all of this resembles a white elephant that the kings of Siam gave to someone they didn’t like: the person couldn’t refuse to accept the gift, but the elephant ate so much that it could make its new owner go bankrupt.

Also, if IoT devices are to become the world’s “nervous tissue,” they need to be protected against cyber-attacks, which is currently a very weak link of the whole Internet of Things and a source of serious concerns. Furthermore, there shouldn’t be any SPOF (single point of failure) so that the global economy stays up and running in case a critical node is compromised.

It could be that these fears are blown out of proportion and the think tanks may have already come up with a way to at least sort out the power consumption issue. That would be great. It’s kind of a nuisance to spend several minutes on the phone explaining to a courier how to get from the subway to my place, which is 300 feet away when Apple Watch Series 24 could explain this to a drone.

David Balaban, content writer