“Things” is probably one of the least specific terms you will ever hear in the context of sophisticated cutting-edge computing technologies, which probably makes the concept “Internet of Things” more memorable. Furthermore, it was coined (doubtless during some kind of blue-sky brainstorming session) by a man Wikipedia call “a British technology pioneer”, Birmingham born Kevin Ashton. If you’ve not heard of the Radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology that he helped to standardise and promote, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a part of your everyday environment. In fact, that might just mean it’s on its way to becoming discreetly ubiquitous. If you’ve come across those funny little micro-chipped stickers with the concentric squares when checking your books out of the library – or just used them to accidentally set off security alarms – then you’re using RFID.
As for the Internet of Things, much of which revolves around RFID, it’s pretty “futuristic” and something which I got to learn a lot more about at the PhD Summer School I attended back in August. Yesterday, I submitted a summary of what I learned on the course and (bearing in mind I am no expert) I thought it would be interesting to share with you this section on “The Internet of Things” – not least because it is already on its way and is an excellent demonstration of how technology can both solve and create problems for society in ways that have far-reaching implications.
A computing concept that describes a future where everyday physical objects will be connected to the Internet and will be able to identify themselves to other devices. The term is closely identified with RFID as the method of communication, although it could also include other sensor technologies, other wireless technologies, QR codes, etc.
To give some examples of use, there are clearly benefits in terms of commercial supply chains and logistics; stock from a warehouse or the fuel consumption of delivery drivers en route can be more effectively tracked and monitored using RFID chips and broadcast networks. In the home, a consumer might be alerted by their fridge, via their mobile phone, that they need to remember bacon. Every object, addressable via internet protocols, would have a unique identity and an active online profile, developing what seems to some people a “personality”. It might be perfectly possible for your guitar to find other musicians in your area with the same taste in music as you or the shop that sells its type of strings. On the streets of a city, the lighting might automatically dim to save resources when sensors detect that there is nobody nearby requiring illumination or, in a combination of art, engineering and science, change colour depending on the measured physiological responses or the stated (online) preferences of a pedestrian.
For this, a complex architecture is required to support a global network of programmable and addressable “smart” devices (both physical and virtual) capable of being part of the IoT. These devices would be context aware, with embedded sensors, processors, tracking, monitoring, and (possibly) visualisation capabilities; they would capture and store commercial and/or personal data and respond in ways both pre-programmed and calculated in ways apparently intuitive to serve a user’s need or supposed need. This might involve “thing” to person (t2p), machine-to-machine (m2m) or “thing” to machine (t2m) communication paths. Such interactions extend the kinds of data exchange already taking place between objects, systems and intelligent devices like “smartphones”, the hardware and operating systems of which having in many ways suggested or laid the frame for the development of the IoT. Much of what is needed for it has already been or is currently being developed in R&D or manufacturing sites around the world.
Of course there are a plethora of potential economic and social benefits associated with the implementation of the IoT, particularly in the area of health care or for improved energy efficiency and waste management. But it’s vital also to have debates here about technological determinism and the tendency by technologists to narrativise – in a linear “step-wise” fashion – supposed “inevitable” progressions of innovation and societal advance. The move from fragmented network technologies to cloud computing certainly appears compellingly logical; but we must not forget that ultimately, we decide the ends to which technologies are put and the values placed upon them. Having the rather “Science Fiction” style IoT vision become reality is not unproblematic. Issues include privacy, security, a lack of demonstrable benefit beyond industrial efficiency, and possibly low consumer acceptance in civil society. RFID chips are thought by some to be “spychips”, the processes and implications of which will be mysterious to most consumers who will not know exactly what data is being gathered about them or who it is being accessed by.
More prosaically, there are technical and functional issues that need addressed such as “data flooding” – when much of the data gathered and subsequently read from an RFID tag is not useful or meaningful to the organisation or individual accessing it. Further, there are the usual problems of a lack of standardisation of formats, frequencies and communication protocols to allow the interoperability required for a global Internet of Things. Connecting smart devices, software and systems in the cloud will of course require new and flexible business models and the identification/creation and capture of new business opportunities and markets within sustainable economic sectors. Whatever your perspective, new skills, new attitudes, and a fundamentally different philosophy will be required of us if the IoT is to be safe, successful, and opt-outable of.
Getting back to work on my thesis, I thought it might be time to be brave and
share some of my more academic musings with you. I am currently combining preparations for initial data gathering with exploration of the literature and an elucidation of my framework. I’ll not post anything on the data gathering for now. Clearly this brief extract is part of a work in progress; which makes comments especially welcome!1 🙂
Searching around Deansgate in the rain for an interesting place to get lunch and an espresso resulted in a short trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. The building, situated away from the main road so that it has plenty of room to breathe, is beautiful inside and out, making bold use of display screen technology in the “Revolutionary Manchester” gallery that introduces you to the museum’s themes.
Instead of using old-fashioned wooden and cardboard plinths to explain what the exhibits are all about, the museum incorporates (in places) iPads into its displays. Amusing little games can be played at the same time as you discover the history of science and technology via touch-screen interfaces. Even mid-morning and in not so great weather, people of all ages and nationalities wandered around, looking (as if almost to their own surprise) very much impressed. There were examples of early computers (including one recreated by Manchester University’s School of Computer Science) and a Ferranti Mark I logic door. There were also displays on the CERN reactor and nuclear energy.
Proof that people were taking things seriously came from the middle-aged foreign lady explaining eagerly to her friend who Ada Lovelace was: the theme here being women’s contributions to computing science. Apparently half of Ferranti’s programmers were, in 1951, women – chosen for their accuracy and reliability. I wonder by how much that percentage has changed today?
For the more “old school” museum (and of course aviation) fans out there – and for me, a little reminder of Glasgow’s Transport Museum in the days before it became the Riverside Museum – the Air and Space Hall is really worth a look too. Chock full of planes and one or two motorbikes (air and space?) it’s basically a big shed with a viewing walkway snaking around it from above. Exhibits include a Roe Triplane from 1903 and the Yokosuka MXY7 Ohka Mark II plane for the Kamikaze pilots of WWII. You may know that one by its far more romantic sounding translated name: “Cherry Blossom“. Lovely!
Anyway, there are 5 buildings and 12 whole halls with various themes to explore and today I only had time for a few. Not sure yet if I want to “take a walk through a Victorian sewer” as part of the Underground Manchester theme. But the next visit will definitely take in the Communications (“Connecting Manchester”) Gallery as well as the Power Hall for sure. Watch out for some pictures of retro telephones and cameras! Other pictures in (my) gallery above are of “The Avenue”, a fancy shopping centre (sorry, “luxury shopping quarter“).
Just don’t climb on the letters!