Internet of Things

sensors, automation, gesture control, smart cities

The Internet of things (or IoT) is one of our most buzzwordy topics. It refers to physical devices, vehicles, buildings, and other stuff which have been embedded with software, sensors, and network connectivity which enables these objects to collect and exchange data. More broadly, it is also used as a marketing slogan for an array of connected consumer devices of widely varying utility and quality, which in turn has also made the term a shorthand for jokes about hackable refrigerators and password-leaking tea kettles.

The reason for these jokes is that the consumer devices currently sold as this emerging "internet of things" tend to focus inexpensive ubiquity, while setting aside things like security and standards compliance. The idea being that if it's just a cheap little camera for checking in on your dog, why bother with the extra expense of making it secure? This oversight allows these little gadgets -- innocuous on their own -- to be taken over by the millions, and the gathered swarm of baby monitors and lightbulbs turned into in massive distributed weapon.

Behind the mockery (and/or sinister threat) of superfluous features added to home appliances is the fact that relatively powerful computers and sensors have gotten so cheap and small, they can be added to almost anything as an afterthought. Which means that data collection which used to require specialized, expensive technology can increasingly be done with cheap, discardable tools, or with systems already embedded in other devices.

This is one of the foundations for "smart cities," where services and resources can be continuously monitored, and attention to them allocated with far greater efficiency than reacting to an eventual problem. Traffic jams, overcrowded transit, brownouts, illegal dumping, could be remediated or even prevented by monitoring a ubiquitous flow of ambient data. But this in turn suggests a potentially horrifying dystopia where every streetlight and trash can literally knows your name, or where a glitch could prevent your oven from working or your door from opening.

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