What is the internet of things?

Wed 6 May 201509.51 BSTLast modified on Tue 21 Feb 201718.03 GMT

IoT is more than smart homes and connected appliances, however. It scales up to includesmart cities think ofconnected traffic signalsthat monitor utility use, or smart bins that signal when they need to be emptied and industry, with connected sensors for everything from tracking parts to monitoring crops.

Where its most common, in Britain at least, is home heating and energy use partially because the government is pushing energy companies to roll outsmart meters(althoughit has been questioned whether it can be delivered on schedule). They have clever functions that let you turn on heating remotely, set it to turn down the temperature if its a sunny day, or even turn off when theres no-one home. Some can tell the latter with motion-sensing cameras, or simply by seeing that your smartphone (and therefore you) has left the premises.

The internet of things (or as its also known, IoT) isnt new: tech companies and pundits have been discussing the idea for decades, and the first internet-connected toaster wasunveiled at a conference in 1989.

Theres a host of clever connected health ideas:Intel made a smart bandthat tracks how much patients with Parkinsons shake, collecting more accurate data than with paper and pen;Sonambamonitors daily activities of senior or ill people, to watch for dangerous anomalies; and people with heart disease can useAliveCoreto detect abnormal heart rhythms.

Among its many other cultural and economic assets, Google is accumulating a rather comprehensive record of what is troubling us, from asking the search engine to diagnose our disease symptoms to whether we will ever find true love. It seems only natural, then, to turn to Google to decrypt the latest piece of technical jargon, the internet of things.

Why does it matter? Theres a reason the government is encouraging energy companies to hand you a smart meter: all that data and automated use is more efficient, meaning we use less energy. Many areas of IoT show such benefits, though some smart gadgets are more about whizz-bang effects than efficiency, which may well be why were seeing more smart heating than smart fridges in the UK.

This all depends on your industry: manufacturing is perhaps the furthest ahead in terms of IoT, as its useful for organising tools, machines and people, and tracking where they are. Farmers have also been turning to connected sensors to monitor both crops and cattle, in thehopes of boosting production, efficiencyand tracking the health of their herds.

Google searches have been filled with questions about the internet of things. What is it and why does it matter? Is it safe? Is it even real? Here are some answers

Surprisingly, its tough to answer. Technology is full of marketing and hype its often difficult to decide early on whether an innovation is truly ground-breaking or not. After all, many tech punditsmocked the first iPhone.

The examples are endless, and all we can predict is that connected devices will likely creep into most businesses, just the way computers and the web have. When the efficiencies are with tools or plants, its easy to appreciate the potential benefit, but when its office workers who are being squeezed for more productivity, it could take on a bit of a dystopian shade: imagine your security access card being used to track where you are in the building, so your boss can tot up how much time youre spending in the kitchen making tea.

On the flip side, a smart tea maker that knows just when youre in need of a cuppa could be very handy indeed.

Everything new and shiny has downsides, and security and privacy are the biggest challenges for IoT. All these devices and systems collect a lot of personal data about people that smart meter knows when youre home and what electronics you use when youre there and its shared with other devices and held in databases by companies.

At its core, IoT is simple: its about connecting devices over the internet, letting them talk to us, applications, and each other. The popular, if silly, example isthe smart fridge: what if your fridge could tell you it was out of milk, texting you if its internal cameras saw there was none left, or that the carton was past its use-by date?

So the short answer is yes, IoT is relatively safe: youre not likely to face serious loss or damage because of your smart meter, any more than your home PC, at least. However, theres no guarantee, and so far not enough is being done to ensure IoT isnt the next big hacking target.

A decade from now, everything could be connected or perhaps only bits and pieces with specific benefits, such as smart meters; and we may call it IoT, smart devices or not call it anything at all, the way smartphones have simply become phones.

Smart pillsand connected monitoring patches are already available, highlighting the life-saving potential of IoT, and many people are already strappingsmartwatchesor fitness bands to their wrists to track their steps or heartbeat while on a run.

But the internet of things is one of those wider ideas that isnt dependent on a single project or product. Smart fridges may well be the appliance of the future, or could fall by the wayside as too much tech for too little gain, but the idea of connected sensors and smart devices making decisions without our input will continue.

No matter where it is or what we call it, IoT is real but what it will look like in the future is something even Google cant answer.

This is perhaps the best query being Googled about IoT: is it real?

Security experts arguethat not enough is being done to build security and privacy into IoT at these early stages, and to prove their point have hacked a host of devices, fromconnected baby monitorstoautomated lightingandsmart fridges, as well as city wide systems such as traffic signals. Hackers havent, for the most part, put much attention to IoT; theres likely not enough people using connected appliances for an attack against them to be worth the effort, but as ever, as soon as theres a financial benefit to hacking smart homes, there will be a cyber criminal working away at it.

Healthcare is one area where more data has the potential to save lives, by preventing disease, monitoring it and by analysing it to create new treatments. However, our health is also one of the most sensitive areas of our lives, so privacy and security will need a bit more preventative medicine first.

It is a term that internet users have been peppering the search engine with questions about. But what does it mean for real life? Weve taken the most commonly asked questions about the internet of things, and answered them using a real human being.

What is the internet of things?

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