Cloud computing is passé; Big Data is getting bigger and mobility is a given. But what is stirring excitement and merger and acquisition deals is the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). Companies with their feet in the cloud (pun unintended!), mobility, big data analytics, and the IoTs, are hot commodities.
Firms that have cash to spare are buys buying big into the above areas. We will see more and more sector- or industry-defying deals — the idea of a Google car doesn’t seem an oddity anymore. IoT is at the epicentre of a tidal wave that is likely to overturn the established industrial order.
What is IoT?
Shorn of all jargon, the Internet of Things is a network of products and devices that are connected to the Internet. So far, people have been on internet through their computers and mobile phones, and have mainly used the Net for searching, browsing news, gathering information, shopping, planning travels, messaging, talking, collaborating, checking weather, watching events live, storing and streaming pictures, music and videos — countless other activities.
In this sense, people are the acting agents in the ‘normal’ internet.
It’s all about things
One way to understand IoT is to imagine it as a kind of internet where the acting agents are ‘things’, not people — think car engines, tires, factory machines, appliances such as refrigerators, air-conditioners or heaters, and even streetlights and parking lots; whatever you can imagine can be fitted with sensors and internet connectivity.
Networks of these can be formed. Cars already come with an army of sensors, measuring every conceivable parameter from speed, tire pressure and engine temperature to pitch and roll, acceleration and exhaust gas composition. Machines in factories have detectors and control mechanisms to automate them; wearable devices like fitness bands and phones have many sensors too.
We already have many instruments in our homes, offices, factories, and public spaces that are fitted with sensors, and some of these have forms of connectivity, such as bluetooth, RFID, analogue interfaces or Wi-Fi.
Miniature motes of sensors
A lot of work is taking place in research and development of new sensors and what are called ‘motes’. Motes combine a sensor, some electronics for interface, memory, computing, and a means of powering all of this.
If they can be miniaturised, such intelligent sensors can be embedded in a variety of things — they can be implanted in a device, stuck on, or worn. They can even be sprayed — in farms, for example, they can measure soil moisture content, conductivity and other parameters as feedback to begin drip irrigation or replenish doses of nutrients. These ‘things’ can also be equipped with their own diagnostics.
So, what do we mean when we say the ‘acting agents’ are ‘things’? In simple terms, it just means that motors, thermostats, sprinklers, valves, lamps, cars and other instruments fitted with such ‘motes’ will generate information, share it across the IoT network and act on information over the network, with minimal human intervention.
Human beings (still) need to figure out how to group ‘things’ fitted with ‘motes’, what they will share and in what ways they will act so that the IoT network does something more productive than what they (the humans) could have contributed.
What IoT networks can achieve is hindered only by the factors given below.
Sensor and mote size
Powering of motes
Protocols of connectivity and sharing information
Algorithms and artificial intelligence backed by (big) data
Proofs of concepts and commercialisation
Human inertia or resistance to change
One can imagine how and why the resistance to change will come about. The Google Car, yet to be commercially available, is already seen as potential threat to the existing order in the world of automobiles.
Companies like Toyota are scrambling to produce their own automated cars. Pushback from existing car companies, regulators who listen to existing industry players, and social factors (like cabbies’ unions) will naturally play out. Google Car is an IoT network by itself (with numerous sensors and actuators working to a plan) connected with other cars and with a super network of networks. In this, human beings can just feed information about where they wish to go and input the road rules of the game, and they might be dropped off there.
The entire chains, from patients to physicians, pathology and diagnostic centres to hospitals and specialists are likely to morph into something entirely different through a combination of IoT and traditional computer networks.
You can imagine that in homes, an IoT network may allow control of lights depending on not just the time of day or movement of people but also based on whether your television is on (to provide some ambient lighting to cut glare or contrast) or whether you are listening to music. Even the curtains or window blinds can be adjusted. Humidity and temperature sensors connected to IoT will help you optimise energy consumption.
All these are possible, but the challenge will be in developing IoT apps that make various settings easy and which can learn your preferences. Researchers are working on ‘cells’ which generate electricity from body heat. Such energy sources will be a boon to wearable devices or even body implants equipped with IoT networking.
One can only imagine how value chains in industry will undergo upheavals. Tremendous value locked in existing ways will be destroyed and be captured in newer ways. IoT networks will generate data that are orders of magnitude bigger than humans now create. Obviously, we will need even bigger capacities in big data analytics and cloud technology. You can now understand why cloud, big data, mobility, and IoT are hot.
It’s likely that you will deal with the emerging IoT network related businesses while working with a start-up or with an existing player. If you extend your knowledge into other areas and spend time imagining, you may surprise yourself.
You will need to indulge your imagination time and again. People capable of breakthrough thinking will be in hot demand — ‘imaginators’ will be in as much demand as the techies.
The Age of Artificial Intelligence will ride in on back of IoT. It will render traditional white collar jobs redundant. It will demand breakthrough thinking in all jobs to take advantage of enormous amount intelligence at our finger tips. But do we have enough people who can routinely do breakthrough thinking?