You might think of the 'Internet of Things' (IoT) as connected home appliances, or self-driving cars, but its first use was actually in the sale of lipsticks. The term was coined in 1999 by British innovator, Kevin Ashton, while he was working for Procter & Gamble. Ashton realised that lipstick sales were being held back by the speed at which stocks could be replenished in the shops – a process that at that time relied on manual stock checks. To solve the problem, he came up with the idea of putting a sensor on lipsticks so that supplies could be replenished automatically – and the IoT was born!
Now, 18 years later, the IoT is being applied to everything from fridges to traffic lights, promising to increase efficiency across a whole range of industries and make our lives infinitely easier. Figures from Statista estimated that there were more than 17.6bn connected devices in the world last year, while Business Insider Intelligence says there will be double that number (34bn) by 2020. It looks well on its way to world domination - but how does it work?
What is the Internet of Things?
Rather than being a foundational technology itself, the IoT has evolved on the back of various other innovations, including wireless communication, real time analytics, machine learning, sensors and embedded systems. These have been combined to transform 'things' - whether that's physical objects, devices, vehicles or buildings - into a connected part of the internet, enabling them to be controlled or sensed remotely. Doing so brings the power of computing to the physical world, removing the need for human intervention and introducing much greater automation to everything we do.
How will it change the world?
Needless to say, the potential benefits of the IoT are huge, not least the enormous time and cost savings to industry, business and individuals. The supply chain example is a really good one, where IoT allows organisations to track where their stock is at any given time, optimising efficiency, reducing losses and maximising sales.
It's also praised for its ability to reduce waste and energy, by allowing us to better control our use of resources based on our actual needs. Think of the NEST thermostat, which controls your central heating based on when you're at home, away, or even in bed. No more leaving the heating on when you're on holiday! Another great example is a solution by Altiux, which aims to better control street lighting based on a city's requirements. If it succeeds, the energy savings and environmental benefits will be enormous.
Safety can also be enhanced by the IoT, by enabling us to track security systems and potential threats automatically and remotely. It also promises huge improvements in healthcare, giving patients the power to track their symptoms and vital signs through connected wearable devices. Such technologies could save the healthcare system millions through a reduced need for appointments, onsite tests and unnecessary treatment.
**And what about the risks?
As with any new technology, there are teething problems and various issues that will need to be addressed as the IoT becomes more integrated into business and society. Probably the biggest immediate issue is security, with billions of new hackable devices let loose on the world, often with minimal cyber security protection. Remember the DDOS attack that hit Dyn last year, bringing down sites such as Twitter, The Guardian and Netflix? The perpetrators used an army of 'bots' made up of IoT devices, which had little or no security to protect them. With the IoT growing all the time, these kinds of attacks are likely to become more common, making the right security and cyber insurance increasingly important for businesses.
There are also concerns that as more of our infrastructure is controlled by computers, cyber-attacks could start to become 'physical', with disastrous real-world effects. To give you an idea, in 2015, security researchers managed to hack into the computer systems of a Jeep, killing its transmission and causing the recall of 1.4m vehicles. With a growing number of connected cars on the road, they need to have watertight protection to keep our roads safe.
Another issue is privacy, as to function the IoT must capture and store huge amounts of data about our lives and businesses. While this information is initially used to our advantage, many experts are worried that its existence could lead to technology providers having ever greater control of our lives – control that could be difficult to wrestle back.
Finally, as is the case with many new technologies, the success of the IoT comes down to finding the problems that it is best placed to solve. Just because anything can now be connected doesn't necessarily mean that it should be. It's the job of entrepreneurs and start-ups everywhere to develop the products and services that will genuinely make the world a better place.