What’s the Internet of Things?

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Category: Internet
Posted on: 02/16/2021
a woman holding a smartphone and programming a smart home tablet on the wall

In today’s day and age of smart tech – watches, televisions, appliances, and more – the “Internet of Things” has quietly taken up residence in all of our lives. More than just personal devices, now vehicles, machines, and even buildings are connected online. But just what is this phenomenon that has become so commonplace?

The Internet of Things is a concept that originated about 20 years ago by programming experts at MIT. It boils down to the idea of connecting devices and machines (basically anything that can be turned on and off) to the internet and each other. This creates an entire network of relationships between these devices and gadgets – and people – and how they communicate, called the “Internet of Things” or IoT.

According to IoT Analytics, there are now more than 17 billion connected devices worldwide, with more than seven billion of those being IoT devices. This staggering nugget of data alone indicates the importance of understanding IoT and how it impacts your life. It also begs the first in a series of questions – what is the difference between a connected device and an IoT device? Are all smart gadgets IoT? There are not always hard-and-fast delineations.

Smart Gadgets

Devices are considered “smart” when they have programmable capabilities and some form of automation. These devices generally have integrated computing and a user interface that’s easy to navigate. They may or may not be connected to the internet, which then determines if they are connected or IoT devices.

Great examples of these types of appliances include programmable coffee makers or thermostats that can be set to turn on or off at certain times so that you’re awakened to the smell of your favorite blend and the temperature drops when you go to bed. The more basic forms of this tech don’t require network access to function and therefore are just “smart.”

Connected Devices

Throw in a connection to another gadget, and you’ve got a connected device. This concept is also called M2M or machine-to-machine communication and involves communication or data sharing between two devices without human interaction.

Connected devices include gadgets like smartphones, laptops, tablets, media players, IP phones, and smart TVs, whose primary function is communication. How they “connect” can vary – such as via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or USB – but they generally come with a pre-knowledge of what other devices they will be connected to. 

For example, your computer comes with settings that will connect it to a printer, just as your Bluetooth speaker knows to look for a phone to play music.

IoT Technology

This preconceived knowledge of connected gadgets contrasts with IoT devices that use the power of the internet to discover other devices and initiate data sharing between them autonomously. All IoT machines are connected devices but not necessarily the other way around. The purpose of IoT devices is not necessarily just communication or computation, like with connected devices, but to create a continuous learning process by exchanging data and sharing it with other machines.

Starting to sound a little creepy, huh? Are the machines taking over? We’ll discuss that more in a minute.

The lines between all these classifications are becoming increasingly blurred. The coffee maker or thermostat examples become much more than just smart devices when you use a mobile app to adjust your temperature remotely or put on an extra pot on your way home from the gym.

Some engineers consider devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home only to be connected devices – but are used to control IoT devices. 

Clear as mud, right?

Is IoT Artificial Intelligence?

Fortunately, where there seems to be a bit more clarity is the distinction between IoT devices and artificial intelligence. IoT is understood to be the networking of physical machines that are equipped with the means necessary to communicate via a network (the internet) with each other and the external environment. In comparison, artificial intelligence (AI) occurs when a device is programmed to mimic cognitive function and make decisions based on previous experiences.

With IoT, devices are given a specific set of commands, such as opening a gate when a car approaches, using GPS and sensors to communicate between the gate and the car. With AI, the machine is given the ability to determine for itself what it should do, rather than relying on a predetermined set of instructions.

Implications of IoT

For those 90s kids who are currently having flashbacks of the Disney movie Smart House, you don’t have to worry about your smart house taking over. But you do need to be cautious about security. While IoT devices bring convenience and ease to your life, security is one of the biggest concerns, especially for devices used in your home. Do you want the whole world to know that you just asked your tv to search for Smart House on Disney+?

And we’ve all talked to a friend about some product or service only to find it in our Instagram ads 20 minutes later. Some of these features can be lifesavers – like when you get an alert to check into the flight that you booked but forgot to put in your calendar – but at what cost?

Businesses have similar privacy concerns. While the interconnectivity of machines created by IoT can help industry become more efficient – check out this Forbes article on the way IoT is reinventing business – it also creates vulnerabilities for hacking and exposure of proprietary information.

As IoT becomes even more commonplace and the cost to build and own these devices continues to drop, there is no doubt that we will be entering a new era of humanity. With connected devices already outnumbering people by more than two to one, only time will tell how our lives will change. 


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