“Fashions for this summer!” “What everyone’s eating in 2020!” “Tech trends you need to know!”
We fall for these headlines because when we first read them, most of us believe that the world has caught on to something completely new and original – and we want to discover what that is. But the older you get, and the more “trends” you read about, the more you realise that most trends are just a new twist on an old idea.
While 40-year-olds like myself will remember our mothers wearing high-waisted jeans and hair scrunchies in the 1980s, teenagers are making these same fashion choices today, most of them not realising that this particular “trend” was already around even before they were born. And as with jeans, or food – so with tech. It’s simply about reinvention.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is no exception. While the term was coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999 when he was working for Proctor & Gamble, the idea of connected devices had been around much longer, some say since the 1970s (although it was called “embedded internet” or “pervasive computing” back then). The first internet appliance was apparently a Coca-Cola machine at Carnegie Mellon University in the early 1980s. Using the web, programmers could check the status of the machine and see whether there’d be a cold drink waiting for them, before they decided to get up out of their chairs and visit the machine. A bit lazy, but nifty nonetheless.
So how is IoT defined? Some define it as “sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects which are linked through wired and wireless networks”. But it goes deeper than that. I prefer this premise, that IoT is about using connected devices, receiving data, and then using this information to create value for human beings. And yes, while we’re fully aware that this data will still be used by companies to try and control or influence our behaviour, it’s all about cost vs. utility. We choose to still harness the power of IoT, because the value it provides us with exceeds the cost.
But what exactly are the things in the Internet of Things? It’s a heart monitor implant. An identification chip embedded under your pet’s skin. Sensors in a car that flag when your tire pressure is low. Any other natural or man-made object that can be assigned an IP address, and is able to transfer data over a network, can be one of these things.
There are then a variety of different ways to connect these ‘things’ together, whether it’s GSM networks, WiFi or Bluetooth. Think about how it used to be a sort of miracle to connect your TV to your phone, but now there are tiny computers everywhere, from our kitchen lightbulbs to our wristwatches, from our fridges to our trucks. This was simply not possible twenty years ago when every computer was the size of a desktop. You can’t after all, wear a desktop (comfortably anyway) on your wrist.
Extending from this, all of these computers can be independently processing and producing enormous amounts of data, that we can then collate and use to make incredibly smart decisions. Combined with technologies like nanotechnology, big data, and cloud computing, IoT can be used in an infinite number of ways, from managing our health to operating our businesses, from running cities more efficiently to improving wider society as a whole.
Now that we’ve established that the IoT has been around a while, why is it still such a buzzword? It’s because all of these advances in tech are making IoT more cost effective and accessible than ever before. Computing power is getting smaller, faster and cheaper, while battery power is getting better, and storage power is getting cheaper, while capacity is increasing. As a way of understanding these new trends, events like the Digital Transformation for Executives course*, hosted by Mike Stopforth from Beyond Binary, together with Catherine Black and Belinda Mountain from Black Mountain, are seeing an increase in popularity.
It’s glaringly obvious that man and machine are becoming increasingly interdependent. The technology cannot exist without us, but at the same time, we can’t achieve what we achieve, and we can’t progress like we’ve progressed, we can’t evolve like we evolve, without that technology. And as we progress into the future, these applications will no doubt provide us with immense challenges too, such as security and privacy for example. But that’s a topic for another piece, because I’m off to search for a hair scrunchie and put on my high waisted jeans.