The Internet of Things: Giving the World a Nervous System


A wonderful infographic by Harbor Research and Postscapes (see below), describes the Internet of Things (IoT) as a digital nervous system for the world (i.e., “Location data using GPS sensors. Eyes and ears using cameras and microphones, along with sensory organs that can measure everything from temperature to pressure changes.”). Although the infographic is entitled “What exactly is the Internet of Things?” even a quick perusal will convince you that the Internet of Things is going to mean different things to different people. For example, for the home owner it will mean more convenience, better efficiency, and increased safety. For manufacturers it will mean smoother operations, better quality, and increased profits. For the health industry, it will mean better care, improved diagnoses, and decreased hospital readmissions. You get the point. The infographic does note that the IoT is made up of three components: sensors; connectivity; and people & processes.

Don Sheppard (@DonSheppard), an IT management consultant, agrees that the Internet of Things is going to mean different things to different people.[1] He makes that point in three different ways. First, he points out, “No one has really defined the ‘IoT business’ yet.” He explains:

“IoT … still means different things to different people (which is not uncommon in the IT business). For some, IoT represents a smart home door while for others it is a driverless car or a smartwatch. The vision is that everything will be interconnected and cooperating.”

Second, Sheppard writes, “IoT does not have a single target market.” He elaborates:

[blockquote style=”2″]“The term Internet of Things (IoT) covers a wide range of devices, services and other components. Use cases exist in everything from wearables (health monitoring devices, personal digital assistants), to home and condo systems, or to electrical and industrial systems. There are (or will soon be) an enormous number of connected endpoints generating a vast volume of real-time data.”[/blockquote]

This second point is also highlighted by the fact that large companies offering IoT services are pushing their own names for the network. GE, for example, prefers the term “Industrial Internet” because its main focus is on industry. Cisco, which has a broader network in mind, prefers the term “Internet of Everything” because its executives see the line between the IoT and World Wide Web blurring and eventually disappearing. Sheppard’s final point is that the “IoT has to be more than one thing – ecosystems are required.” He explains:

“The world of IoT is not just devices, networks and clouds. It is a complex set of ecosystems many of which will need to interact. For example, a connected TV in your home might link to the vendor’s cloud for software updates, fault monitoring, and value added features (e.g., technical support). The same TV may also access the content providers cloud for schedules, on-demand services, reviews and even games. Finally, your TV may also connect to a ‘home cloud’ to play videos, control environments (i.e., dimming lights), or deliver sound to an external audio system.”

To make these Internet of Things ecosystems work, Sheppard believes the IoT must have, at a minimum, the four following traits.

  • IoT has to operate on standards – No one company will dictate the architecture of IoT or make all the standards for every use case, and yet IoT standards should not be developed in silos. Standardization (including open source) is essential if IoT is to achieve its ubiquitous vision in an effective manner. Standards and best practices will be needed at every level from the physical interfaces to the application and management services. Agreements on security and privacy will be critical as well – would you want someone else controlling your TV? Many of the standards have yet to be written and research into requirements is ongoing. …
  • IoT has to be intelligent – Connectivity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for IoT success. Billions of devices will be connected, mostly wirelessly, and they must be able to interoperate easily and reliably. IoT endpoints cannot all be dumb devices hooked up to centralized intelligent clouds; instead ‘smartness’ must be distributed throughout the ecosystem.
  • IoT has to be green and energy efficient – With the scale of IoT and its pervasiveness across all of society, a new era of energy consumption will emerge – both for battery use as well as possibly for pollution. Many IoT devices may be treated as consumables that are rapidly replaced. With billions of endpoint devices, it is important that we don’t also end up with mountains of IoT garbage. Even now, the rapid evolution of smartphones shows us that re-use and re-cycling is important.
  • IoT has to be trustworthy and secure – Virtually everyone has some concern over how systems secure themselves, their users and the information they host. There are frequent reports of serious breaches, privacy violations and failures even with today’s ‘Generation 1’ Internet services. Deployment of Generation 2 systems, which are based on both the Internet and cloud computing, is hampered by these concerns over security and privacy. These issues can be expected to multiply as IoT devices become embedded everywhere. Trust and reputation will become increasingly important.

Sheppard is spot on. As President and CEO of a cognitive computing company, I’m particularly interested in his point that the Internet of Things has to be intelligent. Much of this intelligence is going to come via cognitive computing systems that will analyze the oceans of data that the Internet of Things will generate. From that analysis, actionable insights will be developed, automated decisions will be made, and symbiotic relationships between systems will be fostered. Sheppard concludes that the IoT must also be one other thing — cost effective. He writes:

“Someone has to pay for the cost of IoT – not only embedding devices in everything but also the cost of data transfer, the cost of cloud applications, and the cost of other software. For example, who wants devices in the home ‘calling home’ to the tech support cloud all the time? And how much times-series data will be transferred if there is little or no local pre-processing being performed? Needless to say, user comfort or convenience cannot be the sole justification for the roll-out of IoT.”

Clearly, there are a lot of kinks that still need to be worked out before the Internet of Things becomes the effective and efficient nervous system analysts envision. Even when the Internet of Things has matured, it won’t be end all and be all for business. As Deloitte analysts note, “For all of its importance and impact, the Internet of Things (IoT) enables, rather than determines an organization’s strategy.”[2] Smart people are still going to have be involved if the desired beneficial impacts of the Internet of Things are going to be realized.


[1] Don Sheppard, “8 things IoT ‘has to be’ for success,” IT World Canada, 13 October 2015.
[2] Deloitte, “The Enabling Power of the Internet of Things: Weekend Reading,” The Wall Street Journal, 11 September 2015.