The Internet of Things: Inevitable Future, or Dystopian Outcome?

I have a neighbor who’s a lawn guy. You can imagine the type. Moved from the city, now that he’s retired and has a yard there’s nothing he cares about more. I didn’t know how many times one guy could mow his lawn in a week (apparently a lot). I certainly didn’t know Kentucky bluegrass was the ideal type to plant here because of the ph of the soil, the rainfall amount and how it feels to walk on (it is, and I can vouch it does feel nice underfoot). Now Kentucky blue might be the best, but it needs more rain than we get here, so that meant an irrigation system with sprinklers. The sprinklers went in and admittedly the lawn looks great, green and lush. Best on the block. But, he was going away for vacation and wanted to be able to control them from afar, after all can’t have a double watering if it rains while he’s gone. So he also hooked up a smart controller to his system that meant he could control it from an app on his phone wherever he had internet (i.e. everywhere). All he had to do then was check the weather.

Or at least, that’s all he would have had to do then. My neighbor wasn’t the first person to be in that predicament. He wanted a perfectly watered lawn even when he was away, luckily the app developers knew what he wanted. They made their sprinkler control app talk to a weather app and he could set his home location and if it rained his sprinklers would shutoff. He could still have his perfect lawn on vacation or anywhere else. Admittedly not the biggest problem in the world, but one very easily solved by apps and devices talking to each other.

I doubt my neighbor has ever heard the term, but that’s a prime example of the so-called ‘internet of things’. Broadly speaking the internet of things just refers to increasingly interconnected devices, sensors, and machines all using the internet to talk to each other. In my neighbors case it was his smart sprinklers talking to his phone and weather app. No single device nor service is particularly novel or groundbreaking, I’d wager a smart sprinkler with an app isn’t even that interesting to most people. What is interesting is connecting all those devices that already exist together. What is groundbreaking is having them learn from each other. Not just an app for weather and one for sprinklers, but a sprinkler app that can talk to a weather service. That Should interest everyone, because it doesn’t take very much imagination at all to see the enormous possibilities that emerge when everything can talk to each other.

Sprinklers might be a small example, but if sprinklers can learn to run themselves to account for weather, what about heating and air conditioning. With that we’ve moved from just stress saved about your lawn on vacation to real money saved from a person’s heating and electricity bills. And what if it was all controlled with the same system that controls your lights and security system, all the sudden we have a smart home. Not by building a new home with cutting edge technology, certainly not by making it so expensive it’s out of reach of almost everyone, all we had to do was connect the devices that already exist together. Have the things talk to each other over the internet. That’s the essence of the internet of things. Realizing the huge opportunity presented before us, not from new technology, but from using the internet to connect together what we already have.

In that sense the internet of things is an inevitability. Since all the technology already exists, everywhere the demand presents itself the technology can meet that demand. Increasingly devices and apps already come with the ability to talk to each other, all the data is already being produced and kept logged, really it’s just not being put to use. There are any number of possibilities, but perhaps the most visible and talked about example of the last several years is self driving cars. Everyone from Tesla to Ford, Apple to Google and more have been developing or rumored to be developing self driving cars. All modern cars come with computers, most new ones more than one, various sensors of every variety, a couple cameras thrown on to help with parking, the ‘things’ are already in place for it to start driving itself, maybe just a few more safety features. The barrier is not the technology, the barrier is all the technology talking to each other and learning, the legs are on we just have to teach it to walk, or more accurately let it learn how to walk. To take advantage of the internet of things, self driving cars especially, it’s not about teaching but rather using the sensors and gathered data with machine learning. The more complicated the project the more we have to rely on machine learning for the implementation, and self driving cars is certainly among the more complicated projects.

The complication and hurdles in mind it’s quite astonishing how far it’s come. Self driving cars may not be ready for public sales, but they have been shown to be quite safe in a variety of conditions, practically more so than the average person for highway driving. If we consider the small steps we’re already taken such as adaptive cruise control and automatic safety features such as collision detection based on machine learning we’re already closer than many people realize. The internet of things is about self driving cars so that you can do something else other than driving while you go somewhere. It’s also about telling your self driving car to pick up some eggs because you ran out, or better yet, your smart fridge telling your car to pick some up because you just used your last one. Unfortunately everything being connected means that everything is connected.

With cars especially we have already seen the possible consequences of everything talking to each other. In 2015 a zero-day exploit was revealed in some Jeep models that could allow a hacker to take control of the entire car remotely. To aid mechanics most modern cars can connect to special diagnostic equipment that can determine engine or car hardware faults, and also while connected to the equipment, these computers can control the components of the car: the acceleration, brakes, transmission, etc. The computer in the car that interfaces with a technicians equipment is connected to the cars main computer that controls the cabin displays, that way the driver can see information about the car while driving like speed or any number of other important bits you might like to look at behind the wheel. That wouldn’t pose a problem except that the cars main computer was able to connect to the internet so it could update things like software, maps, and notably, because consumers wanted it, it could provide a wireless hotspot for the cars passengers. It’s always a safe bet that if a device can connect to the internet someone else on the internet can connect to that device. When that device is a car computer that can also control everything about that car it presents a security flaw to say the least. Hackers were able to break into the cars computer remotely, they could do harmless things like change the radio or turn on the air conditioner, but also since everything was connected they demonstrated they could also accelerate, brake, or perhaps even scarier cut the braking and turning ability of the driver.

A connected car means that your car is now as vulnerable as your computer or phone to be hacked, except that with cars lives are on the line. Everything being connected means that everything is now vulnerable to hostile intent like never before. I can’t say if the convenience of a self driving car is worth the risks involved. Self driving cars, if they reach their potential, will undoubtedly save many lives and certainly a lot of money in the process, but we need to keep in mind, even though the technology already exists, we aren’t getting something for nothing, the implementation of this interconnectedness comes at a cost, and often times that cost is security.

And that’s not to touch on privacy, after all, if your fridge is telling your car that you’re out of eggs over the internet, some company is keeping track of how often you buy your eggs and milk. Not crucial information by a long shot, But how much non crucial information are you comfortable giving up? With a gps enabled phone in your pocket all day your location could be constantly tracked. If only your phone company has that info it doesn’t present a great risk. Apple and Google have good security in place and they use that info to improve their directions software. But what happens when all your other devices and apps that talk to your phone get involved. You may trust Apple with that info, but what about the other companies we’ve talked about? the car company with it’s computer, the smart fridge that knows your diet and shopping list, even your sprinkler system knows when you go on vacation and your house is empty. Each of these things individually is good, but taken together and at once they can prevent a real risk. For every smart home improvement we need to also see smart security improvements as well.

The internet of things has an enormous potential for positive effects on society and technology, but if not thought through carefully the downside potential is almost just as large. I can’t say for certain what it will bring us in the next several years. What I can say for now it has made me wary of car computers and extremely impressed with properly watered Kentucky bluegrass.

Additional reading and resources:

https://www.wired.com/2015/07/hackers-remotely-kill-jeep-highway/

https://www.colocationamerica.com/blog/role-of-cloud-in-iot

https://www.wired.co.uk/article/internet-of-things-what-is-explained-iot

Cornell University Engineering and Holberton Software engineering schools. Studied operations research and information engineering now learning machine learning