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21 Nov 2018 James McKenzie
Taken from the November 2018 issue of Physics World. Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

James McKenzie explores how physics and physicists can turn the hype about the Internet of Things into reality

Everyone has an idea of what the Internet of Things (IoT) is all about. To some, it’s about “virtual assistants” such as Amazon’s Alexa that you can ask about the weather, get to play music or tell you about your commute. To others, it’s the £10 Raspberry Pi computer to make your project come alive. It could be fitness trackers, sleep monitors, fridges that order milk when you’ve run out, smart cat flaps that let only your cat in, or kettles that boil water just as you come home.

I’ve even heard about the IoT in the context of smart buildings that “know” what employees want from their workplace. I’m not sure about you, but I usually have no idea what I want from my workplace so getting technology to sort out my wishes will be challenging to say the least. So my question is: despite all the possibilities offered by an Internet of Things, what can it do for us?

Market forces

There have been some dramatic predictions about just how big the IoT market will be. One early projection from Cisco in 2014 claimed there would be 20–30 billion devices connected to the Internet by 2020 and 500 billion by 2025. With at least seven billion people on the planet by then, that would mean more than 70 devices would be connected to each of us on average.

But given that most people in developing nations have bigger problems to worry about than whether their kettle’s already coming to the boil when they walk through their front door, what are these hundreds of devices actually going to do for us? It’s a question that many Physics World readers could well be working on now and, if they’re not, they may do later in their careers.

First, let’s strip away the froth and try to understand what the IoT is. In my view, it brings together three technologies: incredibly cost-effective computing power, fast connectivity (including Wi-Fi and cloud computing), and cheap and tiny sensors. Much of the relevant technology has been built on the back of smartphones, which have given us GPS sensors that cost just a few dollars and chips as tiny as the dimples on a golf ball.

Two or three decades ago, GPS or gyros were the size of shoe boxes, cost over $10,000, and were available only to the military. Thanks to the advances in microelectronics and Moore’s law holding together for so long, even my MacBook’s charger now has more computing power than my first laptop in 1990. And with low-price radio technology – Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GSM and 4G chip sets – this connectivity is so cheap that the screw-terminal power connectors cost more.

Behind all these advances lies some hardcore physics, without which the IoT would not exist. But knowing the physics doesn’t mean we can predict what will be the successful applications, which are shaped by people and our desires. Humans are a complicated bunch so it’s never easy to know which applications will win out. Perhaps the top application of IoT won’t be a fridge that orders milk or a kettle that boils as you walk in the door but something we haven’t thought of yet.

As for the security of the IoT, sure it’s a worry – an unintended consequence of connecting things together. In the past, security didn’t matter so much. The password to launch a nuclear-tipped Minuteman missile is said to have been eight zeros, which was fine as you first had to get past armed guards into a concrete bunker. But imagine if someone could set one off remotely: now that would be a worry.

Who dares wins

The possibilities of the IoT are limitless. I was once at an exhibition where I saw an IoT device that was meant to be put inside the stomach of a cow by inserting it up its backside. Once I had stopped laughing, the business case – a way of monitoring the cow’s health to improve milk yield – became pretty clear.

The challenge for those working on the IoT is “what’s it for?”

But as with all new technology, the challenge for those working on the IoT is to decide: “what’s it for?”. Applications will be key, as they were with music. Years ago, the only way to listen to music was for someone to play live in front of you. Then we invented the wax drum, the gramophone and radio. These devices were expensive and bulky so then we saw more mobile technology: the Walkman, CD players, iPods and smartphones that let us stream millions of songs via Amazon Music or Spotify.

These technologies have succeeded because businesses knew that people like listening to music and strove to deliver it. Discovering “what’s the thing for?” will be the opportunity for firms. I’ve come across loads of “hacker” projects on the Internet that want to water plants smartly or build automated houses with a Raspberry Pi. The problem is that most people aren’t prepared to invest enough time to make these projects work, which to me suggests they’ll either never work or can’t be that important. Products will succeed only if they do something useful faster, more cheaply and with less effort than before. Only then will the investment be worthwhile.

I believe that what’s holding the IoT back is the right software to make the various things “talk” to each other. Now if you’ve ever written or developed software, you’ll know just how long it takes to remove bugs (or “unintended features” as the coders’ joke goes). The problem is that it’s vastly more expensive and time-consuming to write this kind of software than it is to develop hardware.

But with falling hardware prices, perhaps the future for the IoT will lie in monthly subscription services rather than selling products to customers. And if you think that concept is a long way from pure physics, it is. But then, that’s business.

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