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Forget the Internet of Things. Here’s what IoT really stands for

IoT is just terrible as an acronym. It can’t be pronounced unless you say “eeyot,” which sounds like a drunken insult you toss at a buddy, and spelled out, “Internet of Things” doesn’t really have any meaning. What things? And what’s “Internet” about them?

Fortunately, there’s a growing movement to change the definition of the tech term, to give it more meaning and set us up for the next decade of innovation. Tomorrow, IoT will mean Intelligence of Things. Here’s what that shift will bring – and how everything’s going to change in the decade ahead.

Put a sensor on it

“Imagine my surprise when I entered a restroom in a small [Ethiopian] town outside of Addis Ababa, the capital, and found urinals with sensors – the kind that know when you’re, um, finished,” wrote the well-regarded technologist Shawn Dubravac, describing a 2013 trip in his excellent book Digital Destiny. “In Ethiopia, where indoor plumbing is considered a luxury and a lot of folks live on less than a dollar a day, self-flushing urinals catch your attention.”

But it wasn’t the toilets themselves that caught Dubravac’s eye: Instead, he noted that sensors had gotten so dirt cheap that there was no penalty for adding them. Why not put them in everything? Extrapolate that to the world at large and you’ve got phase one of the Internet of Things, where sensors and network connectivity chips are added at very little cost to ordinary devices like security cameras, vacuum cleaners, and door locks.

“Without intelligence, there is no value.”

As many as 100 billion of these devices will go online by 2025, which will lead to meaningful products for consumers, for sure — but it’s hardly realizing the dream of IoT. Video doorbells, connected sprinkler systems, smart toaster ovens — the Internet can let us access them remotely and do more with them. They’re fundamentally better than they used to be. But the innovation hardly stops there.

When things get intelligent

Intelligence of things looks less like the restroom in Ethiopia, and more like Hartsfield-Jackson  Atlanta International Airport, where the world’s largest toilet maker, Toto, has taken things a step further. There, too, the bathrooms are studded with sensors, from the urinals to the faucets. But they don’t just flush automatically, they all report back to central cloud database. The volume of data is astounding – a single toilet may flush 5,000 times per day. In aggregate, the airport can use this data to predict “rush hour” for the airport bathrooms, and deploy custodians before and after to make sure the toilets are clean, the paper towels are stocked, and everything’s running smoothly.

“The last decade was about connectivity, and we describe that dynamic with the Internet of Things,” Steve Koenig, vice president of research at the Consumer Technology Association, told Digital Trends. “This decade is really about adding intelligence to different devices, services, etc. We’re confronted with a new IoT: The intelligence of things.”

Intelligence of Things Samsung Developer Conference (SDC) 2017
Samsung

In other words, the next decade is about doing more with those devices by tapping into the vast river of data pouring off of them, and leveraging artificial intelligence to let our things do stuff for themselves.

Consider the ideal vision of the networked smart home: Your connected smoke alarm sniffs the air and detects not just the lingering aroma of bacon but a hint of fire. Rather than just blaring a senseless klaxon to startle whoever’s within earshot, it turns off the oven and furnace, shuts power to the room, and calls the fire department. Networking devices together unlocks their power. We don’t want notifications; we want solutions to problems. It takes intelligence to get there, not just connectivity.

“Without intelligence, there is no value,” Kiva Allgood, head of IoT and automotive at Ericsson, told Digital Trends. “I actually view this as a mistake in the space, we have generalized all ‘things’ without focusing on what really matters: The outcome or value to the enterprise or the individual when they digitally transform.”

Connected devices are already changing how we think and act.

That attitude is fading. Connected devices are already changing how we think and act. It’s especially noticeable as smart assistants and A.I. take on tasks big and small for us. Call them microtasks: Things like taking inventory in the fridge, turning on the radio or lights, reminding us that the dryer is done.

“The new solutions hitting the market now go beyond yes and no, or open and closed,” Allgood explains. “Let’s take an everyday example. Your commute. Today, you can find where the bus is, what the estimated time of arrival might be, and what the past occupancy has been. Leveraging additional data, machine learning, and basic occupancy data, we can now see exactly how many seats are available, and if there’s room for your bike, ultimately saving you a wasted trip to the bus stop.”

Putting true smarts in smart homes

At CES 2020, we saw an array of heretofore unconnected devices added to the IoT world, including connected and intelligent kitchen and bath fixtures like Kohler’s Sensate, a voice-activated faucet that can dispense precise amounts of liquid on command. Say “dispense three cups of water” and Sensate handles it while you go back to sautéing your onions.

“To me, that’s evidence that we’re finally at that inflection point and fulfilling the promise of smart homes: Intelligent living spaces that take care of us instead of the other way around,” Koenig said.

But it’s still a promise, despite the rosy picture of the smart home painted by companies that make voice assistants such as Google and Amazon. In their commercials, you can simply speak a command and have your house react, either by locking the door behind you and arming an alarm when you leave or flashing the lights in the living room to let you know the dryer is done. We aren’t there today, despite these commercials, but by getting the final components of the home online, we’re moving toward that world.

What’s next for the smart home? The bones of the home will have embedded sensors in the roof, Koenig speculated, providing value for risk mitigation and insurance companies. Maybe in the future, you won’t have to have a roofing guy come out after a storm to assess damage — the roof might just report where it’s damaged.

Making sense of it all

2020 will bring the first big advancements in what I call phase 3 of the IoT transformation: Using A.I. to process the unfathomably large amounts of data streaming out of these networked devices and leveraging it in meaningful ways.

Consider the progress we’ve made from the days of paper maps, which never really fit back in the glove box anyway. Moving maps to our phones and GPS devices was a good start, but it’s only by networking multiple phones together that the real power of mapping is unlocked. Using millions of cellphones, Waze and other mapping apps can identify speed traps and accidents, reroute us around slow spots, and generally make maps work better.

Better maps are great, but smarter highways are better still. When city planners and even the federal government start to apply data analysis to all of that information, amazing things can happen. We can predict crashes by combining crowdsourced crash data from Waze with state data sets. Or better understand the connection between speed limits and crash outcomes, thanks to anonymized data from GPS-enabled devices.

China's coronavirus outbreak
A security guard keeps watch as an A.I.-powered system developed by Chinese tech firm Megvii screens commuters for fevers as they enter the Mudanyuan metro station in Beijing, part of an effort to contain the spread of the new coronavirus in China. Greg Baker/Getty Images

More to the point, IoT might help prevent future outbreaks of disease: Imagine a global network of sensors and systems that provide an early warning system when infectious diseases threaten to become pandemics. Building one would be an enormous undertaking for governments around the world, but the potential is unquestionable, wrote Dilip Sarangan, global research director for the Internet of Things at Frost & Sullivan, in a recent blog post. Imagine a network of virus-detection sensors coupled with facial recognition and existing surveillance cameras to identify, trace, and monitor people that may have contracted the coronavirus.

“The amount of planning required to make this solution a reality would, arguably, make it one of the most significant achievements in the history of mankind. While I am an inherently optimistic person (while also realistic), I find this to be the ‘holy grail’ of IoT opportunity in the long term.”

Will we get there? Only time will tell. Until then, may your things be as intelligent as they are internetty.

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