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Posted 26 Oct 2014
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Evolution to the Internet of Things

, 26 Oct 2014
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What the Internet of Things is and how it can safely evolve to reach its potential

The Internet of Things, what a great idea because of all of the possibilities. I think the best place to test this would be in Utopia. Whenever a new invention or discovery is made, there is always a potential for misuse. For instance, fire, alcohol, software patents, YouTube, and the list becomes potentially endless when you start combining two or more seemingly innocuous things like Diet Coke and Mentos. Every business is racing to cash in on The Internet of Things, and some even want to be the leader. The reality is, this thing will come to life sooner or later. However, I think it would be best if we started out small and create many Intranets of Things (IaoT) first. Then watch them evolve and develop into something valuable and safe.

The Concept

Before we go any further, let's specify exactly what we are referring to. The Internet itself is considered to be:

noun:

a vast computer network linking smaller computer networks worldwide (usually preceded by the). The Internet includes commercial, educational, governmental, and other networks, all of which use the same set of communications protocols.

Dictionary.com[^].

In the name of science, curiosity, waste reduction, profit margins and many other motivators, the next step is to start connecting other things to The Internet. Things refers to anything that we do not consider traditional computing devices that we interact with the set of items that could be considered as things is anything that is not in the set of traditional computers. The word smart is often prefixed to these other items.

What can be a Thing?

At this point, anything is up for consideration. If you can think it, it is a possibility to become a smart thing on IoT.

  • Household appliances (Refrigerator, stove, iron, light switches)
  • Doors and windows
  • Sensors (Moisture sensors in your plants and lawn)
  • Vehicles (Planes, Trains and Automobiles)
  • Animals (Pets/Livestock)
  • Your children
  • Your parent's children (and possibly your children's parents)
  • Tiny pebbles

What do smart things do?

Smart things report data. The more ambitious vision is for these smart things to be able to also receive data from other things and change their own behavior.

What's the purpose?

Many fascinating idea's have been proposed for what IoT could be.

  • Household appliances interact with sensors on your doors, windows, and persons. If no one is in the house the iron or stove will shut themselves off for safety.
  • Your sprinkler system only waters the sections of your lawn that need watering according to the moisture sensors that report dry sections of your lawn.
  • Cars interact with each other on the road and help drivers avoid collisions.
  • When the previous concept has a failure, the remaining cars are notified of traffic accidents and suggested alternate routes are provided to save time.
  • Warehouse inventories are automatically restocked when the shelves detect a shortage for particular items
  • We will be able to determine if a tree makes a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it.

Improved safety, convenience, efficiency, and answer age-old philosophical questions. The IoT has a lot of potential.

Potential Misuse of the IoT

The history of The Internet, up to this point, has demonstrated that many companies are not capable of completely securing their data; correction, your data. There are millions of businesses in the world, and only the largest data breaches make the news, such as Target (there's some irony), Home Depot and the iCloud accounts of many celebrities.

Security

Security is an easy subject to attack. Most developers do not possess the knowledge and skills to develop secure software. Unfortunately, every developer that writes code for a product must write it securely. Otherwise, this may lead to a vulnerability, even if it is not directly related to the encryption, authorization, or communication protocols. Simple mistakes and failures to verify correct execution can open the door to provide the opportunities for malicious users to create an exploit.

Even after the device engineers have developed The Perfectly Secure Device there is another security factor that exists, which is the users and administrators of the equipment. When the device is not used properly, misconfigured, or not even configured at all leaving the default credentials, the device and what it protects is no longer secure again. There are many potential points of failure when discussing security, only one weak spots must exist for a vulnerability to exist.

Privacy

Let's imagine (as opposed to the less precise assumption) that security is not an issue with the IoT. And we will also ignore the Big Brother aspect as well. There are two important elements required for the IoT to be useful; 1) Smart Things, 2) Data, lots of data. The limits are unknown as to what will be useful or relevant in the IoT. The majority of the data is innocuous, by itself. However, when many pieces of data can be collected and compared to one and another, patterns may emerge. Some inferences that can be made may be harmless, such as your shopping preferences. However, other patterns that can be inferred from your data may be quite personal facts that would cause you great embarrassment or worse.

Even though we imagine your data is "technically" secure a problem still remains. The IoT is based upon your devices communicating with other devices on the internet, reporting data. The communication may only be restricted to secure recipients like the original product manufacturer, service providers and your family. There's big business in data. Any one of those sources could sell your data to someone else.

We could also imagine that the company of your Smart Thing states they will keep your data private. However, the EULA for many software policies give the company the right to collect more data than is necessary for you to be able to properly use the software. This includes information like the times of day you use your computer, internet browsing history and social site account names. Now consider how many conglomerate corporations exist. Even though the company states it will not sell your data, it will most likely state that it has the right to share the data with any of its subsidiaries.

Safety

The more I read about IoT, the more I read ideas about giving human control to the machines in our life. C'mon people! Haven't you seen The Terminator?! That movie is 30 years old now, or even The Matrix, which is only 15 years old. Actually, there are many more probable reasons to be concerned with this application of the IoT:

  • Sensor malfunction
  • Communication interruptions
  • Device incompatibilities
  • Design and implementation errors
  • Unintended accidents:
    • Misconfigurations
    • Making Smart Things do dumb things
    • Hobbyists
    • Groups of Hobbyists (Danger in numbers)
  • Malicious intent:
    • Hackers
    • Disgruntled employees of device manufacturers
    • Governments

People make mistakes, pure and simple. People are designing, building, installing and using this smart equipment. The enormity of safety should not be overlooked. Why do airplanes cost so much to design and build? It is because of all of the regulations, restrictions and requirements for the designers and manufacturers to follow. Once planes are sold, there are also strict regulations for the inspection and regular maintenance of these machines. And in most cases, people always have control of these extremely complex machines.

I believe we are very far off from the point our cars drive autonomously down the highway in constant communication with the road, traffic lights and other cars. The reason is cost. Things are not made the way they used to be. They are manufactured with much less quality now to lower the price and make profit on volume. As the price of appliances continue to drop, it becomes rarer where it is worth the money to have a repair man fix an existing appliance rather than buying a new one.

More careful designs and component redundancies will need to be added as the stakes at risk rise for giving control to devices and machines. This will raise the price of these things. Then a cost-benefit analysis will be performed by the companies that will make these devices to determine if they will sell enough things to recuperate their investment. Much like pharmaceutical companies that neglect to invest in developing medicines for diseases that will not be profitable; this occurs primarily for diseases in developing countries where the patients cannot afford to pay for the medicines.

The IoT is Complex

Hopefully you have started to realized how complex the IoT really is. Up to this point in time, there is still only a vague notion of what this invention can be or will be. I think the IoT will be too complex for any single human to comprehend and understand. In a way, it may become an imitation of us and our interactions (hopefully without reaching self-awareness).

Creating the IoT

In order for the development of the IoT to be successful, many independent models of operation will need to be built. These are collections of device eco-systems that work successfully without the interference of outside influences. Design evolution can then start to take hold has the most successful models for development and interaction of these Things are identified. This means that there will be many different microcosms of device collections that are incompatible with other device groups. Imagine two neighboring smart houses built upon different technologies in capable of communicating with each other (or at least interacting optimally).

The Evolution of Social Interaction for Machines

The obvious and novelty products that have been created up to this point cannot be the limit of what is created in order for the IoT to succeed. More complex interactions of the devices will need to be created to allow the entire system to evolve into something more useful. The sum of its will need to become greater as a whole. How did humans eventually become so successful? The answer is the development of cities.

Cities became places of gathering, which provided more safety, stability, variety, diversity. The needs of the people living in and near cities were more easily met. Trades, and services sprang into existence because a family or tribe no longer needed to spend their time to minimally meet their needs. The citizens became proficient in their craft or trade and were able to benefit from the products offered by others that differed from their own. As cities grew larger, the social structures became more complex.

As the devices become more capable, new ways will be identified that we can combine and apply the data. This larger more diverse set of information that is collected in a device community, such as a smart house, will then start to provide increased value to its owner. The potential value could continue to grow with each device that is added to this mechanical community. Unfortunately the potential for exploitation will also grow. This is the point in human cities where governments were developed along with laws and enforcement.

The point that I wanted to make is that we will need to teach these devices how to communicate with each other, and then interact. Most appliances and machines that we have today are already specialized, so that part of machine society will not be a challenge to develop. However, communication is an extremely complex topic to tackle. It's as if these machines have evolved on their own to become farmers, shepherds, blacksmiths, bakers, haberdashers and pan-handlers on their own. There is no common language that these machines used to determine what trade they should learn. More importantly, how can their abilities be of service to the other machines in their community.

Communication Protocols

Communication can range from very simple to extremely complex. Once again look at human interaction. There is simple body language cues, to the complex and precise language used in engineering designs or legal documents. And unlike engineering documents are supposed to be, legal documents are still open to precedent and interpretation. Machines are much simpler at this point in our history. They require very precise communication protocols, precise to the bit.

There are many network architectures, data routing protocols, and finally application communication protocols. At some-point machine communication protocols will need to be developed that are flexible enough for the machines to be allowed to interpret the information with a certain amount of freedom. I believe this is a scary prospect, especially if the risks are not properly assessed before giving the machine these capabilities.

I can just imagine machines developing their own Ponzi schemes that shift the electricity from some devices in the house to pay promised returns to the other machines as they build their empire. At this point it will be especially important for the smart house owner to continue to buy new devices at an exponential rate to keep the house running properly.

Complete Connectivity

I would be satisfied if the IoT ends at personal device communities, the smart house. However, the realization of autonomous cars interacting on the road to take their occupants to their destination safely will not happen unless the different device communities are taught to communicate with other communities.

This level of communication is so complex, I am not even sure what it would take to create this. The ability of a computer to comprehend abstract data is far less than a human, and yet humans get into auto accidents every day. Yes, many times it's because of poor decisions on the human. However, this doesn't seem to much different than the results that could occur from a malfunctioning sensor on a machine.

Summary

The Internet of Things is very complex. Like it or not it is already here, and it is only in its infancy of development. How it is built and evolves depends quite a bit on how consumers choose to adopt and ultimately value from the development of this endeavor. The progression of advancement will most likely continue along the same path where companies develop their own separate clouds. Smart house eco-systems will be developed, as well as the evolution of manufacturing plants and other environments. Eventually these systems must be taught to interoperate openly and freely for the most grandiose visions of the IoT to be realized. However, do not forget about the potential for abuse and exploitation of the IoT. Many challenges lie ahead.

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License

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Paul M Watt
Engineer
United States United States
I am a software architect and I have been developing software for nearly two decades. Over the years I have learned to value maintainable solutions first. This has allowed me to adapt my projects to meet the challenges that inevitably appear during development. I use the most beneficial short-term achievements to drive the software I develop towards a long-term vision.

C++ is my strongest language. However, I have also used x86 ASM, ARM ASM, C, C#, JAVA, Python, and JavaScript to solve programming problems. I have worked in a variety of industries throughout my career, which include:
• Manufacturing
• Consumer Products
• Virtualization
• Computer Infrastructure Management
• DoD Contracting

My experience spans these hardware types and operating systems:
• Desktop
o Windows (Full-stack: GUI, Application, Service, Kernel Driver)
o Linux (Application, Daemon)
• Mobile Devices
o Windows CE / Windows Phone
o Linux
• Embedded Devices
o VxWorks (RTOS)
o Greenhills Linux
o Embedded Windows XP

I am a Mentor and frequent contributor to CodeProject.com with tutorial articles that teach others about the inner workings of the Windows APIs.

I am the creator of an open source project on GitHub called Alchemy[^], which is an open-source compile-time data serialization library.

I maintain my own repository and blog at CodeOfTheDamned.com/[^], because code maintenance does not have to be a living hell.

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GeneralOh! Brave New World That Has Such 'Fridges in It Pin
PeejayAdams27-Oct-14 7:00
memberPeejayAdams27-Oct-14 7:00 
GeneralRe: Oh! Brave New World That Has Such 'Fridges in It Pin
Paul M Watt27-Oct-14 10:38
mentorPaul M Watt27-Oct-14 10:38 
GeneralRe: Oh! Brave New World That Has Such 'Fridges in It Pin
PeejayAdams28-Oct-14 6:49
memberPeejayAdams28-Oct-14 6:49 
GeneralRe: Oh! Brave New World That Has Such 'Fridges in It Pin
Paul M Watt28-Oct-14 8:00
mentorPaul M Watt28-Oct-14 8:00 
GeneralRe: Oh! Brave New World That Has Such 'Fridges in It Pin
PeejayAdams29-Oct-14 2:12
memberPeejayAdams29-Oct-14 2:12 

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