BOSTON -- Imagine a completely connected world: Your house, your car and even your refrigerator are connected to the Internet so you can turn on lights, lock doors and send a technician to fix the ice maker with a touch of a button. It's not some Star Trek-oriented future, but rather a present-day reality -- albeit one that needs tweaking.
The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to connect various objects to the Internet to create self-correcting devices and provide companies with data for more efficient customer service. Companies can also exploit IoT by using real-time data to make better decisions.
IoT isn't some Star Trek-oriented future, but rather a present-day reality.
With these Internet-connected sensors -- including motion detectors, digital accelerometers, GPS awareness and barcode readers -- companies can adjust their decision making in real time based on the stream of data. For example, a home powered by oil and natural gas could use IoT to stay up-to-date on the price of oil in real time and switch to natural gas when the price of oil spikes.
IoT sensors will take off, according to Gartner. The research firm predicts that by 2020, some 26 billion of these devices will be on the Internet. At the MIT CIO Sloan Symposium on Wednesday, experts and practitioners assembled for the panel "Capitalizing on the Internet of Things" to discuss the promise and perils of this nascent technology.
"We're at the beginning of the beginning," said MIT professor of engineering Sanjay Sarma. "We don't yet have an overarching paradigm. We're not yet connecting the dots." But, he said, "there's also a tremendous opportunity here."
The promise of IoT
Some companies have seized that opportunity head-on.
Daimler Chrysler uses sensors on delivery trucks to provide real-time service for drivers. The company strives to keep trucks on the road 24/7, said Dieter Haban, Daimler Chrysler's CIO. With sensor-equipped vehicles, truck drivers have "virtual technicians" of sorts on hand when a truck encounters a problem. Sensors help ensure 24/7 operations -- and no truck downtime.
Don't kid yourself. ... We can hack your car today
Sensors identify mechanical issues and send data back to a call center. Drivers can determine whether the issue requires immediate attention or the truck can be serviced in the next few days. If truck parts are needed, sensors send data automatically to a service center. When the truck arrives for service, the data can be called up and matched with a part on the shelf, as well as a customer's information.
While today these sensors provide real-time monitoring of truck systems, the goal is to provide proactive maintenance. "The next step would be predictive, [where sensors can communicate that] something is happening before the Check Engine light goes on," Haban said.
Companies like ThingWorx in Exton, Pennsylvania, which has developed an application platform for the Internet of Things, are moving beyond simple monitoring and moving customers closer to predictive IoT. According to Chris Kuntz, director of marketing, farmers now use IoT to measure soil moisture and weather patterns to determine crop irrigation and fertilization methods. With IoT, farmers can make assumptions about future crop conditions and adjust accordingly. "[IoT] can help farmers be smarter about how they irrigate their crops and fertilize their crops" and farmers can make more cost-efficient decisions in real time.
The limits of IoT
But tapping the power of the Internet of Things requires the technology to mature further, experts said.
According to experts, the current obstacles of IoT don't revolve around logistics or connectivity; the bandwidth is now available and getting devices connected to the Web is easy. The greatest barriers are security and management, experts said.
First and foremost, sending data from sensors over the Web raises security concerns. Panelists and attendees discussed the risks of homes being hacked and burgled or personally identifiable information being leaked. This requires companies to think more seriously about security beyond the perimeter of the enterprise.
The possibility for security breaches is only going to get worse, predicted one attendee as a result of IoT. Sarma agreed, but also said, "Don't kid yourself. ... We can hack your car today. You're already on the Internet of Things; it's not the future."
The way forward, panelists said, is to establish common standards and architecture. But doing so is easier said than done.
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Getting objects connected to the Internet has been the first step, but building a foundation that enables changes to one device without disrupting the others is still problematic.
"The connecting of the dots -- if you don't do it right -- is going to be a disastrous, crippled system," Sarma said. When you make a change to the system, "you have all these unintended consequences." Sarma described a hypothetical in which he lends his car keys to someone else, who then changes certain car settings, which then has a domino effect on other settings, such as locks or power.
According to Sarma, getting to a common architecture is likely to involve some compromises and some one-step-forward-two-steps-backward tradeoffs. Sarma proposed a version of such an architecture where every IoT has an avatar in the cloud, enabling the hardware to be managed through its software abstraction.
"Software interfaces are … more malleable than Bluetooth interfaces," Sarma said. "Everything is talking to the avatar." Sarma acknowledged it was an architecture with tradeoffs, but a good way to manage complexity and sustainable change.
Kuntz agreed that managing complexity in the brave new world of IoT presents challenges, and "we need a common architecture" to manage that complexity effectively, he said.
Trends like cloud computing and mobility have also intensified complexity. With data residing beyond the four walls of an enterprise, technologists' jobs have necessarily gotten more difficult.
"Things will break, and more things [are going to] break," Kuntz said. "We're getting into a world of distributed data and distributed computing. The world the CIO owns is no longer in his own data center."