Tea on Tech: the Internet of Things

by Nikita Senthil (’23) | March 1, 2021

Suite of Amazon Products by Tessa Gross (’24)

With its widespread impact across industries and on regular consumers, the Internet of Things (IoT), in the past few years, has become one of the most discussed topics in the technology industry. Although mass media began using the term IoT in the last decade, its history stems from 20th century’s RFID technology.

RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, is essentially an improved version of the standard barcode. RFID tags transmit digital data to RFID readers through radio waves; the RFID reader then converts the radio waves to more usable forms of data and stores such data in a database for future analysis. It was this communication that Kevin Ashton dubbed an “Internet of Things” in 1999, and the term has expanded to include the entire network of smart devices which facilitate communication.

Now that we know some of the history behind the Internet of Things, let us delve into how it works. Remember, IoT is a network of connected devices that reports data in real-time and uses this data to make accurate predictions or decisions. Smartphones, smartwatches, baby monitors, video doorbells, and virtual assistants such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are prevalent examples of IoT devices.

So how is Alexa able to understand your voice and carry out the command, whether it be setting an alarm, updating you with the news, or streaming music? It is important to first understand that while Alexa is the assistant, it operates in conjunction with the Echo, an Alexa-enabled speaker. As a result, Alexa can interact with your home operating system, which is a mini-network of all the smart devices in your home. When you talk to Alexa, Wi-Fi transmits a recording of your voice through the cloud, a facility for remote data storage, to Alexa Voice Services, which interprets the sound waves using machine learning and sends the appropriate response back to Alexa. This entire process occurs quickly enough that Alexa’s response time is roughly the same as a human in a regular conversation. The use of Natural Language Processing and Generation is just one example of how artificial intelligence can intersect with IoT. 

Another IoT device is the smart light bulb: you can use your phone to adjust its brightness or set times when it should automatically turn off. The bulb may also turn on when it detects motion, such as when a person enters the room. The network on which the bulb relies is another home automation hub—like the one Alexa uses—that can use Bluetooth or Wifi to connect the bulb to your phone or PC, or even Alexa!

Another important application of IoT is in healthcare, since IoT medical devices can be wearable, implanted, or stationary; these devices not only assist patients but also collect more data, allowing researchers to better understand medical conditions and improve treatments. 

Some subnetworks of IoT include IIoT, the Industrial Internet of Things, and IoRT, the Internet of Robotic Things. The former has dramatically improved efficiency in industrial systems through remote access and predictive maintenance, while the latter has applications in firefighting, construction, electronics, smart toys, and even robotic pets! 

The Internet of Things has clearly made our lives easier and also improved industrial productivity. However, as with any development in technology, there are serious concerns regarding data privacy. As IoT devices enter more areas of our lives, they often rely on accessing inconceivable amounts of our private data. The more IoT collects, stores, and uses our data, the more entry points there are for malicious hackers to steal personally identifiable information, such as your Social Security Number. While we can anticipate reaping even greater benefits from IoT in our near future, we should continue to advocate for the protection and responsible handling of our private data before it is too late.

Categories: Column, Science

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