What is “The Internet of Things” (IoT), and how does it fit into the way we think about ourselves and society?
It’s a term that’s been around for a while, but recent improvements in technology have allowed the field to greatly impact our lives – with even bigger changes right around the corner. As with all new technology, exactly how IoT will affect us is ultimately dependent on the motivations of the people using the tools.
Earlier this month, the Ming Hsieh Institute (MHI) in the Dept. of Electrical Engineering organized a 2-day workshop in collaboration with Inria to explore what the future of IoT holds for people, researchers, and industry.
Professor Bhaskar Krishnamachari, co-organizer of the event, answers some questions about IoT and how it will continue to affect us.
Like the proverbial elephant, there are many perspectives on what the Internet of Things is or will be. But, in a nutshell, it is a paradigm shift in the way we conceive of the Internet and even earlier communication technologies such as the phone system and broadcast TV/Radio.
To date, our communication technologies have primarily had humans on both ends of the network, while IoT focuses on connecting sensors and machines to each other and to human decision makers: from home appliances to parking meters to industrial sensing and control systems.
It promises to increase our awareness and understanding of the natural and man-made environments we live in and to make our cities greener and sustainable. While IoT products today focus on connecting our home appliances, increasingly they are also going to be embedded in our buildings to make them more energy efficient, in our highways to improve traffic flow and air quality, and in our water distribution systems to reduce waste.
On the flip side, however, our increasing acceptance of pervasive sensing and dependence on software control of our urban infrastructure could also introduce new kinds of vulnerabilities ranging from privacy to increased unreliability to cyber-security threats.
As mentioned above, the security and privacy challenges will be prominent, but there are other significant technical challenges such as dependability, manageability, interoperability and efficiency that the research community faces.
The workshop that MHI organized in collaboration with Inria brought some of the top researchers in this field spanning many disciplines from communication networking to software engineering to cyber-security, to discuss and prioritize these challenges. We plan to issue a document identifying the key challenges very soon.
While some of the academic research work on wireless sensor networks and IoT has informed industry developments and products, there has also been a lot of industry work that has proceeded quite independently of academic research - some of it good, some of it naive.
This workshop brought together researchers from these various sectors to open up a dialog and better understand what challenges still remain to be addressed. While we are still in the process of writing up a document that summarizes the key challenges identified by the researchers, the challenges discussed at the workshop include enabling greater reliability, security, inter-operability, better software design and testing, development of relevant policies and regulations.
With new technologies, it is often the case that what we don't know is a lot more than what we do. Just think, could anyone in the 1970's, 80’s or even 90’s have imagined the particular uses for the Internet (web, mobile web, social networking, telecommuting, e-commerce and online education) that are having a huge impact on society today?
I think in virtually every domain: from transportation, to energy generation and distribution, to urban environment sensing, to industrial process monitoring, to personalized medicine, to precision agriculture, to data-driven businesses, there are many new kinds of IoT applications that have yet to be imagined. Some of these will indeed have a tremendous impact on society, but it is hard to predict the specific forms they will take.
The most game-changing uses for technology arise when a great idea meets the right moment in time. I have no doubt that amazing new applications for the IoT will emerge in the future as we continue to develop the technology. The USC EE department's Ming Hsieh Institute will continue to be a focal point for thought-leadership to identify and address the research challenges in this space.
Professor Bhaskar Kishnamachari is Co-Director of the Ming Hsieh Institute, a Ming Hsieh Faculty Fellow, and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at USC. Read more about his research and teaching efforts HERE.
Attendees of the "The Internet of Things Worshop" with Professor Krishnamachari on the far left.