IoT – A trend, a buzzword, and what it means. What’s behind IoT, IIoT, and IoE?
Are you a fan of science fiction? Some people find it fascinating – while others find it extremely irritating: Many scenarios from the genre of science fiction have now become reality. In fact, some smart people predict that reality will have overtaken most science fiction scenarios within the next 30 years¹. A major technology trend contributing to this development is the IoT. But what is this Internet of Things? In 2012, it connected more "things" (devices) than there were people on earth and, if predictions are anything to go by, it will grow to 75 billion devices by 2025.
The main protagonists of the IoT are devices that can receive, process, and transmit data. They owe this to clever teamwork: the interaction between sensors, computer chips, and the now almost limitless wireless connectivity, for example, via Wi-Fi.
Sensors are to devices/things what our sensory organs are to us humans: They autonomously detect certain physical or chemical properties in the environment or of objects. This may be temperature, brightness, thermal radiation, pressure, vibration, humidity, sound, acceleration, and so on. Unlike our sensory organs, however, sensors can also register effects that are imperceptible for us. For example, pH values, field strengths, air quality, or minimal changes that are so minuscule that we would not be able to detect them.
Another important feature of sensors is that they are also "transformers". They can convert one form of energy (or impulse) into another form of impulse. They transform the physical, chemical, or biological effects that they detect into electrical signals that can be further processed. This creates data – data that can be processed digitally and communicated using wireless or wired technologies.
When you consider this interaction, you also realize where the drivers of the enormous growth of the IoT technology trends lie²:
- High-speed Internet connections are now omnipresent
- 4G and already 5G mobile connectivity has been and continues to be massively expanded
- The miniaturization of integrated circuits is advancing rapidly
- Manufacturing costs for sensors and communications components are falling
- The evaluation of large volumes of data is becoming increasingly easier, faster, and cheaper, thanks to the spread of cloud computing and powerful analysis software
The little and the big sister: IoT and IIoT
The development of "smartization" – devices that provide and process data are readily referred to as "smart" – pervades all aspects of our lives. Fitness watches that count the number of steps we take and measure our heart rate. Smartphones that control the temperature in our homes and light up if the fridge door is not closed properly. Alexa, Siri, and the like, that take our instructions and provide answers to our questions.
In addition to all the smart things aimed at consumers, there is a kind of second IoT – called IIoT: the Industrial Internet of Things. Whereas its little sister focuses mainly on connecting everyday devices – which became possible on a large scale with the spread of the smartphone (a smartphone has up to 20 different sensors that record data every second) – the big sister automates entire industrial processes.
The IIoT enables machines, products, and people to communicate directly to optimize manufacturing and production. Machines are equipped with intelligent sensors and networked in order to plan processes more accurately, to better utilize equipment, to control quality, and to identify any necessary maintenance early on. The digital arm extends beyond the factory floor: In warehousing and logistics, sensors, integrated circuits, and wireless connectivity make it possible to locate inventory; the accounting department automatically receives the relevant data on incoming and outgoing goods; the HR office creates rosters based on the data records, and so on. The smart factory uses the stream of data generated by digital networking along the entire value chain.
… and bigger still: IoE
IoT and IIoT connect devices and machines and improve their communication. Of course, development does not stop here – and the next stage of development also has a name: Internet of Everything, IoE.
Experts describe the IoE as the direct interaction of four components supported by hardware, software, and services: people, objects (things), data, and processes.
- People provide personal insight through connected devices (health sensors, social media, artificial intelligence). Additional technologies analyze this data to gain extensive insight into human behavior and deliver personalized content.
- Physical objects equipped with sensors also generate data that is transmitted over the network.
- The raw data collected is aggregated and analyzed to create relevant data which can be used to make actionable decisions and provide intelligent solutions.
- Processes based on social network insights, machine learning, and artificial intelligence provide relevant information to the relevant people in a form relevant to them.
An important point to consider if we are to imagine a future scenario here (and not a description of what we already have) is this: There will be far more devices with computer chips in the future than there are at present. This is because a chip can be integrated into almost any object. The Internet will not even stop at our bodies. This is what author Philip Specht describes – and illustrates his prediction with an example:
"(The) supposed taboo has long since been broken. Several research institutions are experimenting with microchips that are implanted in the skin. The first technology enthusiasts are also voluntarily mutating into "cyborgs" in non-research areas: At a facility for startups called Epicenter in Sweden, more than 150 people have already had a chip the size of a grain of rice implanted in their hands. Thanks to the chip, they can unlock doors, activate printers, or pay for smoothies with a simple hand gesture. Yet the Internet's campaign of conquest is far from over with innovations such as these: Researchers are (…) already working on nanobots that can be injected into the blood stream and brain implants that connect the brain directly to the Internet."*
Intrigue or irritation? A curse or a blessing? As is always the case when it comes to major developments, it is both! Or: It depends ...
The feasible and the desirable
The increasing digitalization of all areas of life is creating countless opportunities, enormous challenges, and risks that are difficult to assess all at the same time.
This is nothing new. The developments in computer science in the 1970s and 1980s already sparked far-reaching discussions and socio-political considerations about the consequences of computer technology. The philosophical branch of information ethics (a continuation of machine ethics, technology ethics, and media ethics) can be traced back to these debates – which in turn gave rise to digital ethics.
What is new are the dimensions that current and future considerations and discussions have to deal with. Developments are happening at breakneck speed, and it is beyond our imagination to foresee where they will lead our world. Certainly, to the extent – and this assessment is widely shared – that it will be necessary to adapt even fundamental and human rights to the digital age. Drafts of what this "charter of digital basic rights and human rights" might look like are already available.
One important aspect of digital ethics is the distinction between what is feasible and what is desirable: Technology is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.
In the world of digitalization, this always raises the question of what is to be achieved. This is a question all companies should be asking themselves. After all, it pays to think carefully about all digitalization steps – and that applies to steps of any size – mini, midi, or maxi: What exactly do we want to achieve? Which steps are currently possible, feasible, and expedient – and which can/should follow later? What is the expected impact? How do we involve all those affected in planning and implementation – and do so in good time?
Where prudence, optimism, and the determination to get things done converge, and where feasibility and desirability are combined, IoT, IIoT, and IoE remain what they are: digital tools that offer opportunities.
(1) Cf.: Philipp Specht 2019: "Die 50 wichtigsten Themen der Digitalisierung"; Redline Verlag, Munich, P. 15f; (2) ibid. P. 179