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What Is IoT? – Internet Of Things Explained

The Internet of Things can make the digital parts of one’s life more interconnected.

The Internet of Things (IoT) was one of the major tech buzz terms that preceded the current Artificial Intelligence (AI) boom. The IoT broke out of technology circles and into mainstream consciousness alongside the rise of the smart home and digital assistants like Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. While some of that heat (in the form of attention) has dissipated around the specific term “Internet of Things,” its underlying importance remains as strong as ever.

Applications of the current tech darling, AI, will also often be rooted in Internet of Things technology. Let’s take a closer look at what IoT entails, where it came from and where it’s headed in the future.

The Internet of Things refers to ecosystems of connected devices, from crop sensors that judge whether a field is well-irrigated enough to a smart refrigerator.

While the average person might think of IoT as the smart gadgets they have in their home, the topic is wider, and older, than that. The term “internet of things” was coined in 1999 by British technologist Kevin Ashton, but the first example of it in action came far earlier.

Most, including IBM, cite the first use of what we might today call the Internet of Things as a connected Coca-Cola vending machine installed at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. That’s a decade before the World Wide Web went public. The soda machine was connected to a computer network in order to relay stock levels and drink temperature. It still sounds fairly smart today, right?

Forty years later, IoT is everywhere. It’s used in manufacturing to monitor the status of equipment in order to flag, diagnose and even pre-empt problems. IoT is also crucial in agriculture, where it’s used to monitor crops and livestock.

The Internet of Things acts as an injection of intelligence that would be either extremely labour intensive or impossible to recreate with pure people power.

IoT devices will typically use one or more sensors to gather information. The type of sensor and the data it records will depend on the use case. For example, in healthcare one example of IoT use is an electrocardiogram array that records a patient’s sinus rhythm and heart rate.

You then have a software layer that provides data analytics and turns that raw sensor data it into something useful. In the electrocardiogram example, the software would look for signs of arrhythmia, an indicator of an underlying health issue.

IoT tech will typically also either send this data over its own internet connection, or feed its data to an intermediary device like a smartphone using a wireless technology like Bluetooth or Z-Wave.

IoT is so prevalent it can almost seem easier to count what isn’t related to this area. There are great IoT examples for cars, kettles, coffee machines, fridges, washing machines, smartphones and bread makers.

From the consumer side, anything that has a companion app likely has an IoT element involved. It gets a little more interesting when products’ intercommunication can be broadened out to a wider IoT platform. Top consumer IoT platforms include Samsung SmartThings, Google Home and Amazon Alexa. These can control hundreds of even thousands of IoT devices from one user-friendly consumer interface.

A woman interacting with an Amazon Echo Dot voice activated speaker device.

Of course, if you asked someone who actually works in the field about IoT platforms, you would get a completely different answer. They would talk about back-end platforms like Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, Amazon AWS and PTC Thingworx. These are the systems used to construct and operate IoT systems and handle the data and cloud compute requirements.

This is the norm when you move away from thinking about IoT within the home (although naturally these consumer devices still use such a backend), and look at IoT within industry.

For example, in 2023 IEEE published a paper on an IoT agriculture system in Senegal, where more traditional methods of farming are still the norm. The paper proposes IoT as a way to improve crop yield, to give “real-time advice” including the “most suitable crops for a given field,” and to help moderate water use, all employing sensor data as a guide.

Closer to home, Walmart has published an article on how it uses IoT in all of its 4000-plus U.S. stores. Sensors are used to remotely monitor the temperature of fridge and freezer units to ensure food safety (and quality), and to act as an early warning system of machine failures.

People shopping at a Walmart store in the south San Francisco bay area.

The Walmart system looks far wider, too. It is able to lower the energy use of entire stores across the U.S. in order to lower the strain on the local energy grid. This will typically involve altering the HVAC settings of a store, in what Walmart calls Demand Response.

All of these uses weave beautifully into one of today’s hottest tech topics, AI. Artificial Intelligence is incredibly adept at spotting patterns at much greater speed than a person could, and that is at the root of the data handling required when transforming IoT sensor data into something useful. Read more about this intersection of AI and IoT.

In the time of peak IoT hype, you could easily believe the Internet of Things was indeed all just that — hype. However, the reality is simply that IoT has a longer-tail maturation than one might have guessed, having seen the term suddenly catch alight alongside smart home tech.

The uses of IoT that stick are all about common sense benefits. It means less wastage of resources, energy, water and time, and in turn that spells better efficiency in just about all metrics.

It’s so prevalent, IoT tech and concepts are probably already subtly impacting your life. For example, the Internet of Things is at the heart of another hot concept of recent years, the Smart City. This involves the use of IoT to provide heat, light and additional security only where it’s needed, whether indoors or outside, and can mean shaping traffic and public transport systems for the best result.

Smart Cities include another concept not strictly always related to IoT; you will often see the term Information and Communication Technology (ICT) used instead. But it’s a closely related, and somewhat broader category.

For all its benefits, IoT comes with significant challenges. Privacy and security are most pressing and publicised of these.

If sensors are in a person’s home recording data about their daily life, it is naturally sensitive. In one of the biggest of such cases to date, a ransomware group called ALPHV claimed to have infiltrated Amazon-owned IoT doorbell maker Ring, and threatened to release company data to the public. Amazon denied the breach.

A doorbell device with a built-in camera made by home security company Ring.

Just a couple of months later, in May of 2023, the FTC ruled Amazon was guilty of allowing Ring employees to surveil customers’ homes without consent. It was also charged with not properly securing Ring users against hackers.

It is particularly damning for these issues to impact Ring, one of the largest brands in consumer smart tech. The security of the many small Chinese brands is almost certain to be dramatically worse in some instances, not least of which because backend security has to be maintained with software updates to keep abreast of new and emerging cyber threats. This is not a cheap endeavour.

The IoT explosion led to multiple fields rushing to implement the technology to stay competitive. But, as Techtarget notes, this was not always approached with the right level of due diligence. “Many healthcare and automotive companies weren’t prepared to invest the amount of money and resources required to secure these devices,” it writes.

Solutions to this are much the same as they are in other areas of tech: encryption, a team working consistently on security updates and potential vulnerabilities, safe working practices and good internal security hygiene. Hackers’ techniques aren’t always advanced, and phishing for login data remains a key problem — and that can include IoT company employees as well and end consumers.

The softer side of consumer headaches with IoT center around interoperability. While popular IoT platforms can interface with hundreds or thousands of devices, mostly those not made by the platform holder, the experience will vary. This was why MATTER was devised in 2019 as an inter-platform standard to level the field.

Despite plenty of commitments from manufacturers to adopt MATTER, including those from Samsung, Apple, Google and Amazon, its initial pitch is yet to be realized.

All of these issues are reflected in the challenges faced by companies and other entities looking to implement IoT. There are ongoing costs in the data handling, server use and security demands.

Compliance with regulatory systems is a major factor, as with the European Union’s GDPR legislation. If working on a remotely novel implementation of IoT, turning masses of sensor data into actionable results is no small feat either. And while IoT is used in many instances to dramatically reduce energy use, it has an energy footprint of its own.

A 6G World energy report estimates IoT will use 653 terawatt-hours (TWh) by 2030, compared to 1.8 petawatt-hours (PWh) in energy savings. It will save 2.7 times more energy than it uses. And one obvious way for businesses to help offset that energy use is to adopt IoT energy-saving measures in their own infrastructure.

As established, AI and IoT are natural partners, and a bunch of the innovations we may hear about in the next year and beyond may also have IoT to thank — whether it is credited or not.

Healthcare is likely to provide some of the most intriguing examples of this. Wearables can be used in concert with AI to monitor patients over days and weeks, with minimal additional effort on behalf of the patient or the healthcare provider.

These potentially revolutionary uses are likely to be offset by more tales of privacy and security flubs. Read more predictions on the future of IoT.

The Internet of Things adds computer intelligence to a wide and increasing number of areas of our lives. Smart home tech and wearables are the most easy-to-grasp examples of IoT if you’re thinking purely from a consumer perspective.

However, IoT gets all the more interesting in the fields of agriculture, healthcare, city management and manufacturing. Improved efficiency, advanced insights and lower energy usage are all keys of what, to some, may have seemed little more than a hollow buzzword.