By Latayne C. Scott

When tech-giant Samsung Electronics President and CEO Boo-Keun Yoon recently told an audience we had entered a new age, he wasn’t exaggerating or just touting his own company’s abilities. “It’s not science fiction any more,” Yoon says. “It is science fact.”  

This “science fact” is the Internet of Things, or IoT for short. IoT combines the connectedness human beings have had for decades via the Internet with emerging abilities of devices — things — to interact and communicate with each other as well as with humans.   

It’s The Jetsons fiction become reality. It’s futuristic devices on steroids, untethered yet linked, speaking, listening, remembering, and predicting. It’s what happens when machines and systems have sensor-processing power and connectedness.   

Public awareness of the IoT typically involves home automation, or smart homes with some of the latest gadgets: home heating and cooling systems and lights you can turn on remotely with your cellphone; security and surveillance systems that interact with each other and with other remote devices; and appliances that monitor your cooking and laundry. Google even has created a self-driving car project that is testing both modified vehicles and new prototype vehicles on public roads in California and Texas and hopes to have a fully automated automobile by 2020. In anticipation of fully automated driverless cars on public roads, four states — California, Florida, Michigan, and Nevada — and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation related to autonomous automobiles.  

One of the newest trends in the IoT is the emergence of technologies like the Green Bean Maker Module from General Electric Co. (GE), a circuit board that allows a PC user with programming abilities to develop apps and hardware add-ons for some GE appliances. As you are on the way home from work, your washer might be texting your son to empty it, while the oven automatically is preheating and your refrigerator is filling up your dog’s water bowl. Samsung recently released a similar concept for consumers in its ARTIK chip technology for Samsung devices.  

Nonprogrammers can buy lightbulbs you can control via an app on your smartphone, a smart plug you can command using Siri on an iPhone, and other devices your tablet can use to close your drapes. When you travel, new smart luggage can report its locations to you. And then there are FitBit bracelets’ capabilities and the prescience of an Apple Watch that not only taps you on the wrist to remind you to get moving when you’re sitting but also sends information to and from your phone and to other selected Apple Watches.   

By the year 2020, over 50 billion devices and objects will be IoT-connected, according to information technology giant Cisco Systems Inc. Research firm Gartner Inc. estimates [the “economic value add”] will be more than $1.9 trillion.   

Kim Komando, national talk radio host and USA Today columnist, gives the IoT scenario of a home network linking smart devices to a homeowner’s smartphone:

“The simple act of scheduling a morning meeting could automatically trigger the coffeemaker to start in anticipation [of] an earlier wake-up time, prompt the refrigerator to confirm the expiration date of coffee creamer, and adjust the home’s temperature and lighting for departure. On the way home the night before, the homeowner could be reminded to pick up fresh cream from a nearby store. Sensing that the user purchased additional items, the front door conveniently unlocks, alarm disengages, and lights come on as the homeowner approaches the front steps with arms full of groceries. Alternatively, the refrigerator knew to have cream delivered and all that’s left for the person [to do] is to drink the coffee.”   

What is the IoT?

The gift of the IoT, when it’s on its best behavior, is more time for preferred tasks and leisure, support and protection in areas beyond our capabilities and limitations, and the ability to make enhanced, informed decisions in the workplace — whether by a student, a physician, or a horse trainer.   

Interconnectedness, GPS, and what is called “predictive interaction” of IoT devices mean your devices learn to anticipate your wants and needs. For example, when you’ve finished taking vacation photos, your device will suggest friends who might like to see those photos and, perhaps, travel sites you’d like to visit in the future.  

Jeremy Rifkin, author and president of The Foundation on Economic Trends, points to another bonus for end users. The IoT, combined with renewable energy, he says, will see sensors embedded in all devices and will enable businesses and homeowners to produce their own solar and wind energy and then sell it back to utility companies; to share electric and fuel cell automobiles; and to create a society of what he calls “prosumers” who transact all this through their connected devices.  

But the IoT is far more than just machine-to-machine interaction — and it goes far beyond the Jetsons’ world where people push buttons to accomplish the simplest task. Yoon says it’s about people: “Each of us will be at the center of our very own technology universe, an IoT universe that constantly adapts and changes shape as we move through our world.”  

And it’s meant for good, no doubt about that. Ask the person with the arrhythmic heart who lives in a remote location how much she values the nighttime monitor she wears that communicates with a hospital — and her doctor — miles away. Ask the parent delayed in traffic who has the ability to remotely check on his kids.  

 “The military and private sector are coming to terms with the fact that nearly every person is connected to the Internet in multiple forms at any given time,” says Robert M. Lee, an Air Force cyberwarfare operations officer and cofounder of Dragos Security LLC. “Sometimes it is as simple as their smartphone or smart watch, but other times it is less apparent with home technologies.”  

Problems and potential dangers

However, not all people welcome having more IoT devices — even if they can simplify and automate mundane, everyday tasks. One of the problems with the present IoT is the so-called “basket of remotes” problem. Just as most of us have separate remotes for our different entertainment components, this problem is further compounded with appliances, sensors, monitors, computers, phones, and other devices that can’t interact because they can’t speak each other’s languages.   

Instead of a well-behaved net of support, some see the IoT as a potential for invasion of their privacy. “The concerns are the same as [with] smartphones and any connected device, [location and activity of people, snooping (inadvertent or purposeful), and invasion of data,”] says Guy Kawasaki, best-selling author and chief evangelist of Canva, an online graphic-design tool. “  

Some express concern about infrastructure and the abilities of the Internet to handle the influx of data from all those new devices, still others are worried about the security of personal and business data in the “fog” (a geographically closer-in computer architecture than the cloud). And almost everyone wants active control over who uses that data and for what purposes. Even nontechnical parents were wary of Mattel’s announcement of a new Internet-enabled Hello Barbie with speech-recognition technology and progressive learning features that enable the doll to tailor responses in future two-way conversations with the user.   

IoT concerns aren’t just child’s play. Lee is concerned about what he calls the “vulnerability landscape.”   

“Specifically to military operations, the focus on IoT is largely for increased situational awareness, more information, more timely responses, and cost savings,” Lee says. “But the danger exists in the over confidence of these technologies and the underappreciation of the personnel costs. For example, a massive increase in information that can be obtained from sensors across the workforce and world seems enticing. Without the architecture and trained personnel to take advantage of this information in a meaningful way though, the military could very well overburden their databases, existing personnel, and intelligence apparatuses to the point of hurting the mission. So long as the military adequately understands that new technologies require new skill sets, highly trained personnel, and more robust architectures, it can be more fully taken advantage of; there is no cure though, whether it is IoT or any other emerging technology trend, for the issue of identifying, training, organizing, and equipping the force.”  

Josh Shaul, vice president of product management at Trustwave, an information security company headquartered in Chicago, speaks of risks to all. He cites implanted medical devices that could be wirelessly reprogrammed to assassinate users and connected vehicles made vulnerable to being hacked, wrecked, or shut down. “Even things that seem innocuous, like connected refrigerators,” Shaul says, “could potentially be compromised en masse, leading to food spoilage on a massive level, which could easily cause panic or even civil unrest.”  

Nevertheless, Shaul thinks the risks and fears are worth the potential benefits of such technologies. “We should embrace them — responsibly,” Shaul says. “That means baking security into the development life cycle and ensuring that devices aren’t fielded with vulnerabilities or major security design flaws. And it means a requiring a simple mechanism to fix or update fielded devices that are later found to have serious security problems.”   

He says a secure IoT would be a “great benefit to us all."