The Internet of Things sounds like something out of a futuristic science fiction film but it's already here: the technology is already being used in a variety of ways: it's in the traffic jam avoidance programming in navigation devices; in smart thermostats, in public transport swipe cards and the logistics programme that gets goods bought online to the consumer. Physical objects are already connected to each other via the internet and the technology has myriad applications.
"If the cardboard boxes in my basement had RFID chips, they would have been able to tell me that they were getting wet," says IT expert Chris van 't Hof. He adds, "That’s the Internet of Things in practice." Unfortunately, the technology hasn't gotten that far yet and Van 't Hof goes back to bailing out his flooded basement.
Other applications include the washing machine that alerts the user when a red sock has slipped in to the white wash, the refrigerator that automatically re-stocks itself and exercise machines that track your progress and post your achievements online. There are devices in homes and offices that prevent water and electricity wastage and chips in delivery trucks that allow transport companies to determine the location of all their vehicles and their goods.
Another application is the route planner that locates traffic jams by monitoring mobile phone signals; if a significant number of signals aren't moving, the navigation device determines that there is a traffic jam and selects an alternate route.
China, Japan and the European Union all invest about €1 billion a year in the Internet of Things; it is not known how much the US spends but the country also tags, scans and monitors goods and services. "The question of whether this is a desirable development or not is no longer relevant, the technology is there and we're using it," says IT specialist Arjan Geurts of Twynstra Gudde Advice Bureau.
The technical problems have been solved; an RFID or Radio Frequency Identification tag costs just five cents and wireless internet is in the ascendancy. The amount of information being sent is relatively small, which means there is very little chance of overloading the internet connection. Geurts: "the advent of the smartphone is the motor driving technological developments."
The smart cities of the future, where everything is connected to everything else, will be efficient, environmentally-friendly and sustainable. Smart cities are not only being planned in the West, but Latin America also has the infrastructure necessary for their construction. South Africa is well on the way to creating smart cities and Durban will host a Sustainable Energy Society conference in August. According to IBM, Durban is leading the way toward the future by focusing on low-energy consumption housing and traffic regulation.
Asia is in the vanguard when it comes to the Internet of Things. Van 't Hof: "Chinese and Japanese users have integrated the technology very harmoniously. When China introduced electronic licence plates in order to monitor and regulate traffic, the authorities feared it would lead to riots as the technology could be used to restrict freedom of movement. However, there were no protests once the advantages of the system were explained and assurances about data accumulation were given. Transparency was the key."
The greater the number of devices linked into a network, the greater the risk of sabotage, industrial espionage and privacy violations. Van 't Hof explains: "the Internet of Things was developed by IT people, they had very concrete ideas about creating a more efficiently regulated society. The techniques were later applied to other aspects of society. The conditions for identity management are different. The technical developments are the same, but the application of those developments is a political choice and they differ from country to country."
The privacy issues don't worry companies very much, but security is very much an issue. Jaap-Henk Hoepman, a computer security and privacy expert attached to Radboud University in Nijmegen, says, "If something goes wrong, the damage is enormous. A company could be stuck with an entire shipment of perishable goods if the tracking system goes down or could be hit by digital industrial espionage."
"But that's no reason not to go ahead. We have to be aware of the risks. About 90 percent of the applications for this technology haven't even been thought of yet. And there will certainly be ways to use the technology that will make us wonder how we ever survived without them."
©Radio Netherlands Worldwide