Where Did the Internet of Things Come From and Why Do We Need It?
There are a lot of buzzwords around this concept, none of which make it actually clearer. So what really is the Internet of Things? And why is it so exciting?
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You’ve probably heard about the Internet of Things in the context of smart cities or smart devices. But do you really know what it stands for? From IoT device management, through connectivity, to edge and cloud computing—there are a lot of buzzwords around this concept, none of which make it actually clearer. So what really is the Internet of Things? And why is it so exciting?
Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
The year was 1982 and some Carnegie Mellon students were fed up with having to go to the Coke machine at the campus only to find it out of their favorite soda. But what does this have to do with the IoT? Being computer science students, they devised a way to monitor the contents of said Coke machine over ARPANET, a wide-area network used by the US government and certain universities before the World Wide Web.
There are several reasons why this unconventional (though, according to witnesses, rather useful) experiment is not considered to be the birth moment of the first IoT device (that title goes to a toaster, 1990). For one thing, the solution only offered a one-way-stream of communication. The computer could only pull one type of data from the Coke machine. It couldn’t make the machine do anything (like order more Coke when it ran out). And, if we were to be nitpicky, it couldn’t have been an IoT device because there wasn’t really the internet yet. The World Wide Web was only invented in 1989 and made available to the public in 1991.
This is how we arrive at a definition of the Internet of Things: it is a network of connected digital devices that can interact with each other. The key components of that definition are connectivity and interactivity. Without these, we’re left with another technology dictionary term: M2M or machine-to-machine, a simplified concept that—as the Carnegie Mellon Coke machine proves—underlies the Internet of Things.
Even before ARPANET and the World Wide Web, the idea of connected appliances held much appeal, not only for scientists and engineers but for everyone. The Jetsons first aired in 1962 and at that time it seemed like all the futuristic devices presented there were centuries away from becoming reality. But with the internet and a new century just around the corner, the progress was incredible. Science and business both quickly caught up on the potential of having a web of connected devices. It now seems that there is no limit to how the IoT can be employed.
There’s Strength in Numbers
You don’t need to look far to find piles of “trivia” IoT applications other than the famous Coke machine. You will often hear about “smart oysters” being farmed in Tasmania. Also in mainland Australia (New South Wales, to be exact), they’re testing smart farming, this time with avocados. How do you make an oyster or an avocado smart, you may ask? It’s not exactly the avocado that’s getting the smarts, but us.
Avocados need very specific conditions to grow (much like any other plant) and the whole crop might easily get spoiled if these conditions aren’t met. Armed to the teeth with sensors that monitor the state of the soil, air, and the fruit itself, farmers can not only learn in what exact conditions avocado grows best but more importantly, they can affect these conditions to promote growth.
One of the key strengths of the Internet of Things is that it provides data that was previously either inaccessible or at the very least, hard to obtain. The data from a single device might not account for much, however comprehensive it was. Yet, by connecting hundreds, thousands, and even millions of devices, we can aggregate that data, identify patterns and anomalies, and make informed decisions and find improvements.
Streamlining the Process
Better yet, creating a network of devices that can communicate with each other and act autonomously lets us automate processes. The appeal of the Internet of Things lies in the idea of that network, as it eliminates human limitations, such as our relative slowness or proneness to error.
Going back to the avocado farm—knowing when and how much the fruit needs watering is certainly very useful, but it’s also only half the battle won. The other half is providing the exact amount of water at the exact time and being able to replicate this on a farming scale. This is why, apart from a set of measuring devices, there are also devices that act upon a trigger (such as low moisture levels).
This significantly reduces (and sometimes entirely eliminates) human involvement. As a result, processes are speedier, but more importantly, they are repetitive, which may be desirable in avocado farming, but becomes virtually indispensable in industrial applications of the Internet of Things, such as smart factories.
Web of Opportunities
The underlying idea behind the Internet of Things is very simple. If you connect two things, you now have more information and more possibilities. If you connect three things, you have even more information and more possibilities. A smart avocado project may end at the farm with a perfectly grown, perfectly ripe avocado. Or it may not. It may extend from the farm to the table. It may encompass smart ordering systems used in the supply chain or smart shopping apps used by customers.
That’s what the Internet of Things boils down to—a web of opportunities. It’s a unique network that connects people and devices, mines data, and automatizes processes. It has a breadth of purposes that can only be limited by the scope of our imagination. In 2018, there were 22 billion IoT devices and the number only keeps growing. Every day we learn about a new IoT application: smart cars, smart wearables, smart medicine… Who knows what will come next? One thing is for sure: the world already knows what potential the Internet of Things has and is ready to use it for good.
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