We have reached a point where technology is demonstrably starting to fulfill its original intent to make our lives easier. There are countless examples of this today, many delivered through mobile platforms. The next phase demands that technology is applied to make everything even smarter, with early examples of this being smart vehicles, smart homes, smart energy, and smart living.
Underpinning this next intelligent wave of digital disruption is the “Internet of Things” (IOT). The current Internet of People (IOP), which we refer to as “the Internet” today, predominantly connects people to a global system of interconnected computer networks, typically via web browser-based systems of engagement. The Internet of Things will consist of countless billions of sensors, devices, machines, and other as yet non-describable “things”, all connected to the Internet, that usually don’t interact with people directly; but which are processing events & data, and taking actions, instrumenting and controlling the entire sphere of human habitation.
IOT is not a new concept. It’s existed for a while in Internet infrastructure components that have an IP address, and there are implementations of mainstream IOT springing up all around us, from IP CCTV through to Internet-connected smart thermostats and smart meters. What was once the realm of science fiction is rapidly becoming reality. We are just at the start of an unprecedented change in how our world works.
In the same way that space exploration and military spending have generated countless innovations that are now part of everyday life, the IOT will be a catalyst for new and different ways to do things that could not have been done before, or even conceived. But for now, several challenges and opportunities are emerging.
An example is the advent of Electric Vehicles (EVs). Recent advances in technology, an ever-decreasing reserve of fossil fuels, the increased efficiency of electric vehicle engines compared to diesel or petrol ones, and concerns around pollution and proposed central government legislation to address this, have initiated an irreversible transition from petrol and diesel-powered vehicles to electrically powered ones. At the same time, vehicle manufacturers have been heavily instrumenting and controlling vehicles with IOT technology, to the point where some vehicles can already drive themselves with little or no driver input, so that over time most vehicles will become autonomous.
Vehicle telematics are already used by some insurance companies to monitor driver behaviour and ensure they stay within the parameters they signed up to when taking out their insurance. Fleet telematics are used to reduce fuel consumption by improving a driver’s usage of a vehicle’s controls. Telematics can be used for other purposes, such as predictive maintenance, and will be a source of data for autonomous driving systems.
In the same way that F1 car engines are instrumented with several thousand events being processed every second, and their drivers wearing sensors in their racing suits to assess their personal health, modern vehicles are starting to assess the health of their subsystems and occupants. The health of the driver won’t be especially relevant in the future, as most vehicles will drive themselves with minimal human input and complete reliance on IOT sensors and control systems.
EVs will be one of the most advanced technology platforms that humans will interact with on a daily basis, but one where IOT technology is taking care of all the complexity and shielding users of these vehicles from having to do anything other than use their time in transit more constructively.
While most people think of EVs in terms of cars and trucks, their application is much wider. EV concepts are already being applied to global shipping, especially large container ships, and will also transform the aviation industry with electric aircraft. In the future, almost everything that moves people or goods will be powered electrically, will run autonomously, and will share telemetry.
Another example is that of Smart Homes, and the IOT technology that enables them. Today, smart meters are being deployed to help electricity utilities and distribution network operators better understand how power is being used in their distribution networks, so they can optimise these in near real-time to maximise efficiency. In parallel, disaggregation algorithms that use Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning can determine disparate electrical device utilisation within a home at any point in time. There has been a rise in Smart Thermostats that enable people to adjust the temperature in their home to match their needs at any point in time, and from anywhere. The insights from these home energy innovations can inform people how to minimise energy consumption while maintaining a pleasant home environment. The technology to do this (small embedded sensors, low-power short-range wireless protocols, cloud-based data aggregation, intelligent algorithms, next-best-action processing, and visualisation-derived insights) is being adopted quickly, and costs continue to fall as IOT becomes a mainstream mass-market.
While current initiatives have focused more on reducing energy consumption in the home, there are several others that are looking at smart door-locks, smart window openers, smart domestic appliances, and home automation in general. In the home of the future, life will be both more comfortable and more convenient.
Another example is the transition to Smart Energy. Our current way of generating electricity in remote power stations, especially nuclear ones that are situated a safe distance from populous areas, requires long transmission and distribution grids and networks. This is being disrupted by the ever-increasing demand for electrical energy, especially for Electric Vehicles. They require so much power to charge their batteries that existing domestic electrical installations will struggle to cope. To charge a typical EV battery in one hour today would require 100A of current at 220v. Current distribution grids assume that most houses are drawing far less than this, perhaps 4A on average throughout the day, and certainly aren’t scaled to supply 100A to several houses in one locality at the same time. If the rise of EVs continues as expected, and other demands on electrical consumption increase, then even if significantly more power stations were built, entire transmission grids would need massive investment to satisfy that demand. These investments don’t make economic sense.
This precise scenario has led to the concept of smart grids that provide localised power generation, storage, transmission, and consumption. Solar or other renewable energy will be generated locally, often by individual homes or businesses, each of which will have a Home Battery array capable of storing several kWh of energy. Every local power generator (home or business) will store, trade/sell and consume energy within their local area, thereby augmenting existing grid power and minimising the need for updated transmission infrastructure and more power stations. And all of this will be facilitated by IOT sensors and control systems, which will manage everything.
Opportunities exist to bring related IOT systems together, to create “mash-ups”, based on integrating adjacent datasets. For example, by correlating electricity usage with temperature measurements and other metrics from wearables and medical devices, an elderly person’s health can be remotely assessed in real-time – without invading their privacy too deeply. As we all expect to live longer, there’s some comfort in knowing that we won’t ever be left completely alone.
We are moving to a world where smart vehicles, smart homes, smart energy, and even “smart people” – the instrumentation and probably technological augmentation of individuals – will all work together as part of a smart lifestyle to help ensure we exist in as healthy, comfortable and convenient an environment as possible. And already, these different areas are starting to collide positively – both in terms of new initiatives driving technological innovation, and new technologies enabling new ways of doing things. This “network effect” is likely to accelerate the pace of change even more, to the point where it becomes possible to instantiate a new idea or desire within a very short time period.
Humans have struggled over millions of years of evolution to be here today. We progressed relatively gradually until around the 18th century, the start of the industrial revolution in Europe. Information technology and digital disruption have accelerated this pace of change, especially in the 21st century. While technology may be offering us a safe and healthy world, our evolutionary instincts and the way our brains work haven’t changed that much – evolution takes many generations, unless we discover how to evolve ourselves medically. It will be interesting to see how we cope as a species in this new ultra-convenient smart world.