In the future, one of my friends has diabetes (allow me to bend the verb tense). If you swim laps with her, you’ll notice a flat, rectangular bump in her lower back. That’s a rechargeable insulin pump. Her lower back also shows a three-centimeter scar, the location of a continuous blood-sugar monitor implanted a year after the pump. Underneath her left arm, there is what looks like a tattoo, but is actually an ultra-thin respiratory and heart rate monitor.
When she exercises, these devices recognize the change in blood sugars and adjust the flow of insulin to her system. If she wants, she could link this system to her credit card or calendar, which would recognize her purchase of a meal and the associated nutritional changes. If she splurges on a milkshake, the insulin pump will be notified ahead of time.
These devices communicate with each other and create a very small Internet of Things—The Internet of Her. She is hosting a small network of sensors that exchange data in mutually recognizable formats to accomplish a task none of them could accomplish alone.
Granted, this is science fiction, but not for long. We are going to have devices using low-power, short-range networks to communicate with other devices. This type of communications will require adaptive and flexible methods. This is going to require sophisticated device management.
Heads-Up, Active Devices
For this to work, IoT devices will tell time, know location, and understand the situation around them. They will know their function and how that function fits with other nearby devices. They will uniquely identify, self-organize and intelligently combine to produce solutions. With time, they will encounter devices that didn’t exist at the time of their manufacture and learn how to use them—or that the new device makes them obsolete and that they should shut down and decompose.
It’s a “heads-up” approach to computing and devices. Ignorant black boxes won’t work. These devices will actively explore their surroundings and be capable of reacting to changes. It’s like a good musician performing with a jazz combo. If the drummer switches to a waltz, everybody needs to change along, or you are suddenly listening to incomprehensible mush (or free jazz, but that’s a discussion for another time). Like jazz musicians, IoT devices will need awareness of their context.
Autonomous? Can We Trust It? Can we trust IoT?
The pushback to this argument is two-fold: first, why not just include manual configuration in all devices so we won’t need on-board configuration intelligence. Two, isn’t awareness of context a security risk? What if someone walks by my bionic friend carrying a malfunctioning heart-rate monitor? Would that override her implanted monitor and juice her with a blast of unwelcome insulin?
First: Manual configuration and control works in small doses. But IoT is also big data. IoT assumes lots of devices making lots of decisions in small amounts of time. That's high data velocity plus high data volume. Three devices monitoring blood sugar is manageable. Millions of devices monitoring the ripeness of a field of corn are entirely out of human manual control. Not to mention that as complexity of devices increase, so does the training required. Anyone who has tried to construct a home network out of separate modems, routers, switches, access points and hubs will describe the increasing complexity each device adds to the problem. Configuration needs to be automatic.
Second: Security is a risk. True. More devices means more attack surfaces. It’s something we’ll need to consider and balance the risk versus reward equation. More on that in another posting.
Context Awareness Requires Common Data
For all of this to work, there needs to be a common language among devices. You’ll find discussions about specialized IoT data structures or advocacy for extending existing formats. It’s an argument we are just starting, but it is already clear that XML and contextual tagging will play an essential part in the solution. Be sure to look up MQTT, CoAP, AMQP, Websocket, Node and JSON.
Expanding the Definition of IoT
We are in the early stages of defining what IoT actually means and how it will work. It’s helpful broaden our scope and look to micro as well as macro applications. Like all good science fiction, we will overestimate the near-term effect and underestimate the long-term.
What are your thoughts?