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The internet of things (IoT) is the connecting of physical devices to the internet at a large scale, allowing them to communicate with existing internet connected devices and each other. This creates large amounts of data which have the potential to greatly enhance existing applications as well as add new ones.

Why the Internet of Things is important

1. Consumers.

For consumers the IoT offers new, at times futuristic applications, such as smart homes, which can automate tasks or alert users of problems. For example, a connected car could automatically signal that a user has left work, leading to the thermostat adjusting the temperature in the house. IoT applications for consumers can also create new products, lights or security cameras controlled via phones, smart cooking appliances – up to preparing a house for natural disasters.

Another promising area for connected devices is health, where they can enable new levels of monitoring, diagnosis and treatment through ingestible sensors, medical tests or connected insulin pumps.

2. Cities.

On a larger scale, the IoT enables the creation of “smart cities”, an idea articulated as early as 1997. Connecting existing security and traffic cameras and installing further sensors, allows unprecedented gathering of information about how a city is navigated as well as its use of resources and infrastructure. All this information can be gathered centrally, in control centres like Glasgow’s and provide information for city planning, real-time surveillance and management. But very simple devices can also connected, for example Amsterdam’s self-dimming smart streetlights or smart bins which optimise collection routes in Barcelona.

Key Debates

1. Data & Civil Rights.

IoT devices collect a lot of data. Some of them because that is their purpose, for example medical devices measuring insulin levels. Others record it to fulfill their task, for example optimising the route a smart vacuum cleaner takes through a house. Both create problems. Practically, that data needs to be transmitted, stored and processed. This is especially challenging for large scale applications in a smart city, as often many different actors collect data, with very different rules for using it or making it available.

Both these issues are further complicated by privacy concerns: A recent report revealed that smart vacuums sent detailed maps of homes to their manufacturer. Connected devices can give police helpful capabilities to fight crime effectively, but this also creates a huge burden on the government to responsibly use the data collected and the capacity for surveillance. Similarly, recent attempts by private companies to build or run smart cities have been criticised.

This public use of connected devices requires careful consideration about what a city needs, whether a given solution will be effective and whether it complies with legal and ethical standards. Safeguards need to be in place to make the system both safe and prevent abuse.

Nesta’s work has highlighted that top down approaches are likely to be both expensive and ineffective, whereas more democratic initiatives can make cities more livable and collaborative.

2. Reliability.

As internet connected devices light our homes, lock our doors and heat our food, it becomes more essential for them to remain operational at all times. At the same time, several factors make failure more likely:

1. Code is complex. Most IoT devices rely on large amounts of it, often assembled from many preexisting parts. With a wide range of applications and different combinations of devices working in different settings, it becomes almost impossible to plan for every eventuality.

2. These devices need internet access. This is problematic in the case of network failure, but can also become an issue if you move a device outside an area of coverage, as in the case of this driver, who was locked out of his car in the desert.

3. Even when they work, IoT devices almost always rely on external applications, such as servers storing their data or processing it for answers. Often these services are outsourced to external providers. An outage in 2017 at Amazon’s Cloud Services, which offers cloud-based processing power by the hour, had wide reaching consequences, taking down many websites, including Amazon’s own status page, responsible for displaying errors with its system. It was caused by a simple typo.

4. A further common nuisance are software updates. Most computer users will be familiar with long restarts after updating software. This is more annoying if all lightbulbs in your home stop working for 20 minutes, while they update. But updates can also introduce more permanent problems, such as when smart door locks stopped working, locking out homeowners and Airbnb users.

5. Apart from these issues which relate to mistakes, there is of course also the risk of attack such as the recent Wannacry ransomware. As any with any internet connected computer, perfect security remains elusive. With the IoT this threat becomes more severe: Consider the difference between an attacker gaining access to holiday photos on your laptop or even your bank account compared to IV pump delivering drugs to patients in hospital.