Home EuropeEurope 2006 The dawn of the Internet of Things

The dawn of the Internet of Things

by david.nunes
Lara SrivastavaIssue:Europe 2006
Article no.:6
Topic:The dawn of the Internet of Things
Author:Lara Srivastava
Title:New Initiatives Programme Director
Organisation:Strategy and Policy Unit, International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
PDF size:88KB

About author

Lara Srivastava is New Initiatives Programme Director with the Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU) of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), in Geneva. She worked previously for the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunication Commission (CRTC), the Technical University of Delft, in Netherlands, for the UK-based telecommunication consultancy Analysys and for App-Tap, an Internet start-up company. Ms Srivastava is a qualified Barrister and Solicitor and a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada. Her publications include: ‘The Internet of Things’ (2005), ‘The Portable Internet’ (2004), ‘Licensing of 3G Mobile’ (2001), ‘Shaping the Future Mobile Information Society’ (2004) and ‘Ubiquitous Network Societies’ (2005). Lara Srivastava holds a BA Honours degree and Master of Arts in French Literature from Queen’s University, Canada, a French Studies Diploma from the Université de Strasbourg, France, a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Ottawa, Canada, an Advanced Post-Graduate Diploma in International Law and Telecommunications (CRA) from the Université de Panthéon-Assas Paris II, France and a Master of Science in Technology Policy from the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex, UK.

Article abstract

The Internet, now used by almost a billion people, is evolving. The Internet of ‘data and people’ is expanding into an Internet of ‘things’ that connects not only people, but also everyday objects, or ‘things’. Although this means that speedier checkouts, intelligent appliances, lifestyle applications, better healthcare and streamlined business processes will soon be common; there are some important challenges ahead. Internet governance will need to become increasingly multilateral, transparent and democratic and individual rights to privacy must be guaranteed.

Full Article

The Internet as we know it is undergoing a radical transformation. From an academic network for the chosen few, the Internet is now being accessed by almost a billion people worldwide, using personal computers and, increasingly, mobile devices. But this is only the beginning. In the future, the Internet will evolve to become a fully pervasive, interactive and intelligent system. Indeed, today’s Internet of ‘data and people’ is slowly being expanded to an Internet of ‘things’. Using key technologies like radio-frequency identification and wireless sensor networks, real-time communications will be possible not only by humans but also by everyday objects or ‘things’ at anytime and from anywhere. As such, the new Internet of Things creates a host of exciting opportunities for a wide array of players. Moreover, for users, the connection of individual things to a network will mean that the real world will become increasingly easier to manage by virtual design. As such, it is likely to increase user convenience (e.g. speedier checkouts, intelligent appliances), enhance quality of life (e.g. lifestyle applications) and reduce inequalities (e.g. better healthcare), while streamlining important business processes. For the telecommunication industry, it is an opportunity to capitalise on existing success stories, such as mobile and wireless communications, but also to explore new frontiers. It may be worth recalling the words of a visionary in this field, who, as Chief Scientist of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre, had, almost fifteen years ago, so eloquently described his vision of the Information Society of the future: “the most profound technologies are those that disappear (…) they weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it” (Mark Weiser, 1991). Of course, the realisation of Weiser’s vision still requires further innovation and development. He foresaw that dedicated IT devices would eventually disappear while information processing capabilities would increasingly appear around us. So, in this sense, what he had in mind was the ‘ubiquity’ of technology, i.e. the unobtrusive connectivity anytime and anywhere by anyone. But also by ‘anything’, heralding the dawn of a network, or even Internet of Things. But for Information and Communication to be truly and seamlessly embedded in the environment in this manner, an exponential growth of networked devices must be accompanied by a paradigm shift in computing. Delivering on the promise of ubiquity has been thus far limited by our inability to collect real-time raw data about things and people, their location, status and preferences, on a wide scale. The ability to do so would lead to a shift in the nature of cyberspace, in the nature of the Internet, as we know it. With the benefit of integrated processing capacity, all kinds of industrial products will take on identities that can be queried remotely or equipped with sensors to detect changes around them. Such developments will transform the static objects of today into new dynamic things that embed intelligence in the environment, and stimulate the creation of innovative new products and new services. Indeed, it would enable communication and interaction between people and things, and between things themselves, at a staggering scale. Key technology enablers The Internet of Things is a technological revolution that depends on dynamic innovation in a number of important fields. In this respect, there are four key technology areas: – First, in order to connect everyday objects and devices to large databases and networks, a simple, unobtrusive and cost-effective system of item identification is crucial. Only then can data about things be collected and processed. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) offers this functionality; – Second, data collection would benefit from the ability to detect changes in the physical status of things, using sensor technologies; – Third, embedded intelligence in the things themselves can further enhance the power of the network by devolving information processing capabilities to the edges of the network; – Finally, advances in miniaturisation and nanotechnology mean that smaller and smaller things will have the ability to interact and connect. A combination of all of these developments will create an Internet of Things that connects the world’s objects in both a sensory and an intelligent manner. If humans were the only Internet users of the future, today’s user base might conceivably double, but is unlikely to go beyond two billion active users in the near future. On the other hand, if ‘things’ become active Internet users on behalf of humans, then the number of active connections could be measured in terms of tens or hundreds of billions. By connecting the world’s things, the Internet would truly achieve ubiquity in every sense of the word. Opportunities The Internet of Things will enable a number of applications for the consumer, in particular, lifestyle applications, including smart homes and smart vehicles. In a Smart Home enabled by sensors and RFID, for instance, you might find an automated coffee machine, that can sense when you have awoken in the morning, a remote voice control that that will allow you to switch on and off all home appliances, a washing machine that talks to you and updates you about the progress of your laundry; a smart toilet that can test urine and send data to your doctor over a wireless network if there is something wrong, and electronic wallpaper that can act as a display. There is growing awareness of the opportunities for traditional telecom players in this regard, particularly in the area of RFID. In March 2004, Nokia introduced the Nokia RFID Kit, a GSM phone with RFID reading capability for supply-chain applications. Within the next year or so, the handset manufacturer intends to give consumers the ability to use their mobile phones to access data rich in information about consumer products sold in retail stores, through the use of RFID. Nokia is developing the RFID consumer phone jointly with Verisign. Another important development is NFC, an emerging standard for communication between mobiles and RFID systems. Focus: RFID RFID is not new. It uses a combination of radar and radio technology. In simple terms, a typical RFID system is made up of three parts: a small tag, which contains data, an external reader, which reads data, and middleware, which forwards the data to databases or the Internet. The information on a tag can contain anything: location, price, washing instructions, banking details, medical records. It is already being used for access control to buildings, in supply chain management by big players like Wal-Mart and Tesco, and is even being embedded under human skin. It is also being talked about in the context of tracking bank notes and passports. What is clear is that it has the potential to multiply the number of network connections. At this time, radio-frequency identification tags are about the size of a grain of rice, and some of the more advanced sensors can fit on a small coin. But rapid advances in this technology herald an age of microscopic, or even ‘nano-scopic’ computing capabilities. Looking beyond the early phases of RFID deployment, there is a silent revolution gathering momentum: one that applies the computing power in a tag or sensor to a much smaller scale. Scientists are already working on such particles (e.g. ‘motes’ or ‘smart dust’) and other similar innovations grouped under what have become known as ‘nanotechnology’. This miniaturisation coupled with a drop in prices will rapidly expand the scope and penetration of the Internet of Things. Sensors such as temperature tags, vibration sensors, chemical sensors etc. can significantly enhance the functionality of RFID technology. Such smart sensors will provide yet another mechanism for acquiring data. Their integration with accurate time and location-sensitive RFID tags will provide records of the status of a given item and how it has been handled. As sensors collect data from their environment, they generate information and ‘awareness’ about the things around them and their context. For example, sensors embedded in an electronic jacket can collect information about external temperature and adjust the parameters of the jacket accordingly. They humanise technology by complementing and in some cases replacing the five human senses. Challenges There is general agreement in many circles that the governance of the global Internet should be multilateral, transparent and democratic. The need for such governance becomes even more acute as the global Internet expands in content and accessibility, and therefore in strategic commercial importance. Domain names, for instance, are certainly more than simple resource locators. In fact, they have become powerful marketing tools due to their ability to be easily identified and located with or without search engines. The same is likely to happen with electronic product codes. It is important to consider who will control these unique identifiers, and ensure fair and equal access. Another important challenge relates to consumer privacy and data protection. Strong opposition to the widespread deployment of RFID tags has been voiced by a number of consumers and privacy advocates. The main concern is the capacity of RFID to track things and people, and to record a wide array of information. RFID critics argue that stores, corporations, governments (and an increasing number of interested third parties to any transaction) could eventually use RFID to monitor the activities of individuals and profile individual human behaviour. Defining privacy is no easy task, as the concept is an elusive one. It incorporates multiple perspectives, and is also culturally, politically and historically bounded. In contemporary terms, the notion of privacy revolves around the distinction between the private and public spheres of human existence. The word privacy itself originates from the Latin word privatus, which means ‘apart from the public life’. The overwhelming use of the mobile phone, as an early example of ubiquitous ICT has already blurred this distinction, as public places are becoming increasingly privy to the private lives and conversations of mobile users. The right to privacy has two important facets: a) the freedom to control personal information and b) the freedom from interference or disruption. The first facet is under threat from the ability of emerging technologies to collect data on people’s everyday activities. The second is under threat by developments such as commercial messaging (e.g. spam). On the road to ubiquity, as communication between people, clothes, pens, furniture and appliances increases, computing and processing will occur quietly in the background. Invisible and constant data exchange between things and people, and between things and other things, will occur unbeknownst to those affected. The old cliché “if these walls had ears…” may no longer begin with a conditional ‘if’. So, this begs the question as to who will ultimately retain control over the data collected by the ears and eyes embedded in the surrounding environment. Thus, in order to convince users to participate and to stimulate demand, effective mechanisms for privacy and data protection must be put into place. In this context, the establishment of trust in the management of identity is fundamental. The right balance between the release of a user’s identity (as well as the identity of things related to users) and the withholding of data needs to be achieved early in the development of commercial services. Moreover, this balance must be struck across the various facets of privacy protection: technical, market, regulatory, and socio-ethical. Technical solutions are now becoming an important element in the design of systems underlying the Internet of Things (e.g. fingerprint sensors). Still, technical solutions alone cannot sufficiently address privacy requirements. Regulatory and legal actions in the form of enabling statues and regulations are also key mechanisms. Equally important is the sociological domain, which considers privacy as a social issue related to cultural practices, ethics and institutions. Solutions and design proposals for the future ubiquitous network should contain elements of each of these facets. Humanising the technology The creation of this ubiquitous environment will no doubt lead to innovative applications and services, which will serve to enhance quality of life and reduce inequalities while providing new revenue opportunities for enterprising businesses. For the telecom industry, it’s an opportunity to capitalise on existing success stories, such as mobile and wireless communications, but also to explore new frontiers. For consumers, such developments will make us better equipped to face the challenges that modern life throws our way. But in a new world increasingly mediated by technology, we must ensure that the core of humanity remains untouched. On the road to the Internet of Things, this can only be achieved through people-oriented strategies, and tighter linkages between those that create technology and those that use it. For a more detailed discussion of this topic, see the ITU Internet Reports 2005: The Internet of Things at www.itu.int/Internetofthings/.

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