Mapping the IoT Trajectory
“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
~ Mark Weiser
HISTORY OF IoT
The Internet of Things (IoT), as a concept, has had a varied history where it has been bent to fit the shape of current ideas and has matured over the years. It has been associated with related but dissimilar concepts, such as machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity and web of things. Perhaps the earliest example of a pioneering IoT application, the Siemens’ GSM Module M1 was conceived during the mid-90’s as a M2M industrial device enabling machines to communicate over wireless networks. As the twentieth century drew to a close, Mark Weiser’s concept of ubiquitous computing, formulated a decade earlier, was coming to a head. This was a time when the understanding that machines would increasingly become connected to each other and to the internet-grid, eventually overshadowing the number of humans in this respect, began to permeate the social consciousness. When MIT’s N. Gershenfeld wrote, “beyond seeking to make computers ubiquitous, we should try to make them unobtrusive,” the emphasis — in concept at least — was shifting from connecting machines through wireless networks to doing so in ways that would reduce human dependence. With the dot-com revolution reaching a crescendo of sorts, newer ways of using the internet and of connecting devices to it were being discovered. However, in practice and in the sphere of business, the concept was still largely associated with products and using RFID technology to connect them, thereby improving efficiency in value chains.
Moving into the new millennium, the concept of an electronic product code (EPC) that was developed at MIT’s Auto-ID center (established a few years earlier) used RFID tags to connect physical objects with the internet, thereby transforming it into a networking technology. The concept of IoT, therefore, mainly came to be associated with RFID technology that allows for collecting and transmitting information about products which may be used for inventory management, automated payments, etc. Almost three years later, when the EPC was launched in October 2003, the term IoT was used to describe the network of every object in the world that will be connected by a universal system of unique numbers. Although the business context still comprised the tagging of products with such RFID enabled numbers, we see a conceptual shift. What completes this story is the, now famous, article titled The Internet of Things, published almost halfway between the concept and the launch of EPC when this phrase was used for the first time in a major publication by Kevin Ashton of the Auto-ID lab, when he described IoT as “a standardized way for computers to understand the real world.” It was now that this concept was fully realized into the public domain and came to be discussed in mainstream publications. The term was formally cemented when the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) published a report by the same name in 2005, and a conference was organized in Zurich, by the European Union (2008). Lastly, in 2011, Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG) estimated that “IoT was ‘born’ sometime between 2008 and 2009,” in the sense that more devices came to be connected to the internet than people.
THE CONCEPT OF IoT
It is plain through the analysis above that the term Internet of things has been used to describe an evolving concept that has morphed through time. Today, any definition of IoT would still incorporate that basic element of connected devices networking through the internet. The point of departure would be the technology used and what is achieved through this networking. The barrage of digital technologies have upended RFID as the preferred medium for deploying sensors, while the technologies are now expected, not only to communicate, but to provide rich sensory input as well as interact with the systems (the devices) they are a part of or with the external environment, in a myriad of ways. In several other ways, IoT applications are also seen as disembarking from the deployment of ad hoc devices and being refined by the level and use of connectivity.
There is, however, a more fundamental dimension to the concept behind IoT, which can be better understood by taking a look at what it does or can accomplish. IoT captures data and, while its richness or detail may have magnified over time, it can either be directly used as fact or, as is the case now, is subjected to multiple analyses before drawing any inferences. The IoT applications can also interact with their parent devices or the surrounding environment, based on the knowledge acquired from these inferences. But, in essence, any action based on the data obtained from IoT devices will be a reactive measure, in response to something that had happened and the parameters of which were recorded. It follows, then, that IoT will be used to meliorate the situation of such operations or systems, where that thing had happened. Therefore, IoT would eventually create value propositions around the gaps between existing solutions so that the captured value gels with existing applications and creates a seamless whole. The concept behind IoT is about making existing systems and solution packages work in a more integrated and efficient manner. Thus, IoT provides the proverbial last mile connectivity, by way of facilitating a seamless transition across engagements with different solutions.
CAN IoT BREAK AWAY FROM ITS ESSENCE?
Where does IoT exist? Does it only exist in the efficiency gaps between applications and existing solutions? Can IoT only create value in these gaps or can it exist as a solution in itself? Can it redefine an existing application to such an extent that it is transformed? For instance, if an IoT enabled device connects to the internet and, perhaps, subsequently connects to other devices, its capability can’t be limited to communication. It could, potentially, even transfer commands, thereby taking a decision-making role and reducing the decision making function of human actors. But what kind of decisions could be delegated to IoT? These would have to either be semi-automated decision cycles that are a part of larger decision-making apparatus or such decisions that happen in the peripheral sphere of human activity. Both of these would squarely fall within the essence of IoT, as defined in the previous paragraph.
TRAJECTORY OF THE IoT CONCEPT
The essential aspect of the IoT concept is value extraction from the data captured by sensors deployed in the physical world. While in the early days of IoT, such value could only be acquired by the direct use of such data, however, now it is extracted through analysis and interpretation that may be performed at different levels and systems. Today, it is possible to leverage an army of sensors to, not only measure but effectuate change in their respective systems; to transform the knowledge acquired from captured data into meaningful action. This paradigm shift is being further extended by IoT applications that utilize existing infrastructure, instead of creating evermore layers of data gathering apparatus. Innovation in IoT, today, requires creating newer models and frameworks for generating crucial insights that are wanting from existing solutions, can be readily integrated into them and create fresh value propositions around the gaps between these. Today, the concept of IoT asks of its applications to gel the existing solutions with the value captured around these gaps, so as to create seamless wholes that enhance the digital efficacy of the end consumer, might they be a person, a process or an organization. Furthermore, IoT innovation is being driven by demand from consumer markets, as opposed to the enterprise market, because business needs grow at a moderate pace and because the enterprise market evolves at a more cumbersome pace. The creation of value over the gaps between solutions also has the potential to redefine industry verticals as their functions are stitched into the same fabric by IoT applications.
The truly innovative IoT applications are expected to leverage data that already exists today to solve problems that also exist today but are going to acquire greater prominence in time to come. Presently, these efficiency gaps are being serviced by several competing standards, which, as N. Gershenfeld et al wrote back in 2004, is “a situation reminiscent of the early days of the Internet, when computers and networks came in multiple incompatible types.”
Therefore, in time to come, IoT would facilitate compatibility and integration across products and services, allowing migration and combinatorial usage. The logical next step would be devices taking decisions on their own and translating these into tangible real world (not necessarily physical) outputs without any human input. This would be based on machines, not necessarily understanding, but being able to create the desired, and not always the best or optimal, output that is based on inputs that factor the environmental and other such dynamic conditions that are gauged with relative ease. One can extrapolate further, by factoring in the ability of IoT enabled devices to replicate human decision making process, through the use of dynamic sensory inputs and/or predefined logical apparatus. Another step would take us into the realm of artificial intelligence (AI).
Therefore, changes have not only permeated into IoT at the application level but also at a conceptual level. While trends in products and solutions can be understood from a study of market forces, conceptual understanding requires a far greater clarity over the subject. Significant value can only be captured through a deeper understanding of conceptual shifts, not merely by beating the odds in the market. In keeping with the law of large numbers, both the magnitude and the frequency of such conceptual shifts is increasing significantly and a growing number of industry leading businesses are researching to get a grasp over them. There is a growing imperative for businesses, worldwide, to understand the strength and directionality of this current, for IoT is poised to significantly impact every industrial function under the sun. It only remains to be decided, therefore, how much value are businesses keen to en-cash.