The internet of things – ‘big brother’ or the next big thing?

Put simply, the internet of things connects people, devices and systems. But do you really want a fridge that orders your shopping for you? And if our machines are communicating with each other where does that leave us, the professional communicators?

The internet of things – let’s call it the IoT to save time – is really a huge network of everyday objects such as household appliances, cars, streetlights, shops and buildings. It links people to machines, machines to mobiles and machines to each other.

Internet cable

British technology pioneer Kevin Ashton coined the phrase ‘internet of things’ in 1999. He visualised a system that would connect the things we use to the internet via sensors. The sensors would collect data and report it, analyse and use it. Now it’s a reality. It’s growing all the time and it’s estimated that by 2020 around 30 billion devices will be linked on the internet of things.

Some of the IT crowd see it as the natural progression from computers, the internet, and mobile communications; their ultimate goal is to connect all the objects we use – and us – to form a ubiquitous network. It’s a new way of using ‘intelligent’ devices to make our lives easier, both personally and at a global level.

It’s conceivable that, fairly soon, when you take the last yogurt from the fridge, your ‘smart’ fridge will add yogurts to its shipping list, to be sent to your online grocery shopping account once a week.

Meanwhile, taxis across the city will have their windscreen wipers switched on at the first spot of rain, and drivers will be told where there are free parking spaces. And if it carries on raining and river levels rise, potential flood alerts will be sent to the authorities automatically.

The IoT aims to make us all better informed about what‘s going on around us, proactively helping individuals, businesses and authorities plan and react. Soon it will be as much a part of our daily lives as mobile phones and the internet, widely used by the waste management, healthcare, power and retail industries.

What’s the catch?

No doubt it would be handy if your electricity supplier could read your meter without bothering you, using a meter that reported its own readings, but does convenience mean giving up control? How will we know know if it goes wrong? And how will we know who is using all the data being collected?

Security is an issue; the machine-to-machine (shortened to M2M by those in the know) communication will need monitoring. Serious security and encryption will be needed to protect information as it is gathered, transmitted and stored. So far, experts say that IoT security is complicated and expensive to implement.

There are also fears that, inevitably, businesses will use all the data collected to build up even better pictures of consumers’ habits and spending. Strict policies are needed, some say, on who can collect data and how and when it can be stored.

Others worry that humans will surrender control and initiative, becoming too reliant on our smart machines and cities – but perhaps they’ve seen too many sci-fi films featuring out-of-control robots.

There’s huge market potential: it would be a money-spinner for the companies making the smart devices and for those who‘d love to get all that juicy data on how we live our lives.

Where do we fit in?

Are there any ramifications for internal communication? It’s a bit early to say but we should at the very least keep up to date with it so we can advise clients on its potential.

There’s one intriguing use of the IoT that could affect us: pioneering projects are already developing interactive newsprint with electronics-enabled paper that includes ‘buttons’ to press for audio-reading of stories. If that idea takes off we could have traditional printed magazines that can boast all the attributes of an online publication, truly the best of both worlds.