Week 12 – Internet of Things and Ubiquitous computing

This was the final week of MSYS559, E-Business Technologies, a Masters level paper from the University of Waikato.

This week we looked at upcoming trends around the Internet of Things, Ubiquitous computing, and how this new paradigm of computing hangs together with all the previous topics.

The To Dos for this week was the look The Internet of Things – A Primer. The key takeaway is now everything will be connected to the Internet. And not just things, but many parts of a thing. A car can have a connection with an entertainment partner to provide audio, the transport authority to understand safety regulations in the area, other nearby cars to sense their location, the car manufacturer to measure car performance, the petrol company to state where’s the next best place to fill up, and what’s available.

The core components of Internet of Things according to this visualisation are:

  • Technology – nearly every physical object having sensors, communicating their states to other entities;
  • Innovation – we’ve never had the ability to monitor sensor information for everything, all the time, in a hyper-connected world. What are the new things we can do with this?
  • Domains – all this information will be mashed together from different data silos or domains, all interconnected to everything, and starting to consider what to do, without human input.
  • Application – things will now share information, be monitored, respond to conditions, and will behave like a vast autonomous system.

The scenario I’m most interested in is energy, smart grids, and smart homes. As every device in the home knows how much energy it consumes, and for what task, they can be optimised to use energy at the correct time, at the best price, for the best purpose. All this automatically without people needing to think about this.

But there are of course, risks. The Internet is a dangerous place, and we haven’t really considered the consequences of what happens when everything is controllable remotely. For instance, take an electric heater. It’s turned off. Someone accidentally drapes some clothes over it or near it. Hackers turn the heater on. A fire happens, and people die. Who’s liable in this case? If you have a smart kettle and hackers turn it on and it boils nothing, or is turned off an on a hundred times a second, what happens to these devices? Who programs the kettle to now define a safe standard operating mode?

The second to do was to read Software Above the Level of a Single Device – The Implications by Tim O’Reilly. This talks about what’s missing with Internet of Things – People. There’s an obsession towards things, what things do, what things know, what things think about. But this doesn’t take into account that things are tools – tools that help people achieve outcomes. And so while it appears that the problems of Internet of Things are technical problems, most of the time, they’re actually people problems, mostly relating to “What is the user trying to do?”.

Users provide inputs, sometimes explicit by interacting with a thing, and sometimes implicit by interacting with the environment. The example provided was the Nest thermostat, which adjusts the temperature depending on what you physically adjust it to, or based on if you’re in the room or not.

These things make decisions based on sensors, but all these sensors are are user interfaces to the thing. If Nest sees I’m not in the room using infrared, that’s still a user interface to Nest. And sometimes these user interfaces are poorly designed because they only think about what the thing is trying to achieve, without taking into the context of the world we’re in, and how the thing fits into that world. The example used was a Tesla car key, which doesn’t have a key ring. It does everything a car key needs to do, but has a poor user interface to the world since people keep losing the car key.

However, the overriding theme of the reading was, don’t just use Internet of Things to solve today’s problems. Think about tomorrow’s problems and solve those. Solve the hard things.

My reflection is, by the time you’ve come up with something to solve the future problem, the future is already here, and hopefully your timing is great.

3 thoughts on “Week 12 – Internet of Things and Ubiquitous computing

  1. Good summary. I think the security issue is over-hyped, but not enough dealt with. Everybody talks about the need to study security, provide means to provide it, but nobody is taken it seriously. The electricity problem you mention are a good example. But why is nobody, neither the kettle producer nor the electricity provider nor anybody in between, taking the issu seriously and doing something about it? We are relying too much on seeing security as “somebody else’s problem” or responsibility, so that, in the end, we will always be subject to hacking, attacks, etc.

  2. I think that security will be one of those things that falls through the gaps, and companies will end up pointing to each other and say “it’s not my fault”. A bit like integration really.

    Perhaps that’s a business opportunity for someone, which is providing the security and integration layer on the Internet, a bit like https://ifttt.com/.

  3. There are cloud services which provide layer 7 protection between your app, network and the user (http://www.ca.com/us/lpg/layer-7-redirects.aspx), but again, its all about cost to serve the customer, something start-ups don’t have much bandwidth in is disposable cash unfortunately. Even well funded start-ups like Tinder etc suffer from security breaches and well possibly bad security policies to start with.

    Take a look at the open source SDN solutions, I saw a YouTube clip for def con and a guy hacking it with a zero day exploit (https://youtu.be/9_toldlQpgI), and the open source software was backed by many big global companies/industry players in the field. Actually I was quite interested in the whole SDN as a future security measure but after seeing that clip it shared the bejesus out of me.

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