The internet-of-things that go bleep in the night

Bleep, bleep, bleep – the shrill noise jolted me out of sleep exclaiming, “What the heck’s the smoke alarm going off for!?”

Next thing, I’m leaping up out of bed, turning on lights and pulling the still-shrieking thing off the ceiling to remove its battery.

Instant silence. Whew! Wife? Still sleeping; who’d believe it? And, hey, no smoke – but what tripped the alarm?

Ah, I guess sensors aren’t fool proof; maybe just as well this one wasn’t some kind of ‘connected device’, sending little love messages to the fire department.

At about this point my bleary thoughts drifted to the likelihood that they soon will be if ongoing excitement about the ‘internet of things’ is anything to go by.

Then another thought struck me – what might an ‘Internet of sometimes faulty things’ be like?

Only a few days earlier, I’d found myself having to disconnect the car’s battery in order to reboot its on-board computer and clear an endless loop of spurious error messages which, it seems, were sufficient grounds for the engine to ignore the start button. Were these incidents a foretaste of some dystopian future where mankind escapes battling the elements only to be plunged into daily struggles with overcomplicated tech? Hopefully not, but it seemed worth bearing in mind.

First though, what is this mysterious internet of things (IOT) term that’s increasingly bandied about? Like, isn’t the internet already made up of a massive number of ‘things’? Servers, routers, switches, cables and so forth? It is, but by now all of this hardware appears absorbed into the ethereal ‘cloud’ and, by this linguistic wave of the wand, abstracted out of existence. So in fact, IOT assumes those ‘things’ as given. Instead, it is about the connection of other ‘everyday things’ to the cloud - your fridge, car, coffee machine, security system, medical devices and so forth.

It’s also being used in connection with a whole bunch of ‘new things’, in particular sensors that gather information about the real world which can then be scooped up by other connected devices or cloud applications. Plus IOT can include things like internet-connected video feeds and real world controls – buttons and so forth – that enable physical inputs to be harvested by IOT apps. Benson Houland, VP of industrial automation company Opto 22, contrasts the internet of things with ‘the Internet of People’ in his TEDx talk, which may be the most workable hook to understanding the difference. First people used the internet to connect and share information; now ‘things’ are starting to do the same.

But what for? Well, it turns out we’re already seeing practical IOT uses, just not always with that label. Things like GPS vehicle tracking, web-accessible home automation, live inventory tracking, remote medical monitoring and much more; basically any tech where real world things are connected to the Internet for control, data-sharing or simply status monitoring – e.g. devices reporting their own availability or faults. A current area of use that particularly embodies IOT is found in the assisted living space where household sensors enable applications to monitor the patterns of elderly or infirm people living alone and raise alerts for family when things seem out of the ordinary. For example; the oven’s been left on, granddad’s much later than usual getting out of bed, he hasn’t ventured outdoors lately; that kind of thing. A New Zealand-based start-up explains the experience they provide here.

Certainly, whatever it will ultimately deliver, IOT does look to be fantastically fertile start-up space, even for small start-ups, thanks to new multi-purpose devices like the MATRIX, which can have custom IOT apps built to make use of its wide array of on-board capability, combined with the power of IBM’s ‘Watson Internet of Things’ services included in their Bluemix cloud platform. The incredible power of Bluemix is that it allows developers to stitch together sophisticated IOT applications with a minimum of coding. For a fun example check out this amazing video of an application enabling the under-$280 BB-8 droid – available from stores like Harvey Norman – to become mind-controlled.

Exciting stuff, hey? But, going back to the internet of faulty things idea, one might well wonder what the next level of tech faults could be like if mind-control becomes mainstream. Imagine, “Nooo, I wasn’t thinking ‘old cat down the InSinkErator’, I was thinking ‘old cat food down the InSinkErator’ – poor fluffy”.

Jokes aside, there are more serious concerns being voiced, in particular about the privacy implications of a world of connected sensors, video feeds, RFID chips, biometric security and location awareness. A few years ago I heard an IBM presentation describing a near future where we wouldn’t need keys, swipe cards, passwords and so forth. Everything; our house, our car, workplace, computer systems, POS terminals and the like, would know who we are and simply make available everything we had access permissions for. I love the idea in theory, but a rather horrifying thought occurred to me even then; wouldn’t that mean it was possible just to ‘switch someone off’, revoking their access to everything? Right now I wouldn’t be too worried; I believe the New Zealand government is fairly benevolent – except perhaps in the case of that Nicky Hager thing – but what if one day we ended up under an authoritarian regime?

All up, whatever the future of IOT turns out to hold, there is one mind-bending conclusion suggested by its emergence: When the internet has connected all the people and all their things, won’t the internet have become the central nervous system of humanity? And if so, what is the potential for control? By governments, by hackers, by AI? And how serious could lapses of security, or faults, prove to be? IOT is going to be a lot of fun to be involved in building, but we’re now staring into a future that increasingly needs conscious reflection to ensure that it doesn’t become, in Elon Musk’s words, “our biggest existential threat”.

John Jones is the founder and managing director of Applicable, a sister company to Zeald specialising in building modern online applications, device apps, custom websites and other cool stuff.