The Internet of Things; a New Tower of Babel?


Posted on: Nov 13, 2015 by Andy Wallace

My daughter, like most teenagers, spends a great deal of her time with a smartphone in her hand.

The smartphone is, of course, liberating for parents and teenagers alike. Old family arguments about hogging the only phone in the house have been consigned to history and my daughter is growing up in the world where people simply expect to be in touch with their friends, all over the world, any time of day or night. And not just people in more developed nations.

From rural Africa to Siberia nomadic people are subtly adjusting migration routes to pass through areas with the best mobile phone signals. Not to be left out, a local guide that I met recently in the Peruvian Amazon is just as likely as anybody in the UK to post videos of cute kittens on Facebook.

So now that we take instantaneous, global communication for granted it seems obvious that we should extend our thinking to inanimate objects as well as people; The Internet of Things.

Is this so radical?

In the early 1990s my local electricity provider was experimenting with smart metering, using the 240v supply network to carry readings back to a collection point in a local substation where a 32k Modem would reside. The pilot was only stopped when an amateur radio enthusiast found that the street lights were transmitting this data to anybody with the equipment and the inclination to listen in. But it seems pretty normal now that smartphones can be used to re-set our heating and lighting or check that our house is nice and secure.

In the B2b world, which of us ever stop to consider the impact of RFID Tags, barcodes and QR codes? We simply expect our Amazon parcel to arrive and our suitcase to materialise on the correct conveyor belt even after changing flights 3 times.

Well, most of the time. Perhaps my next blog should ponder the opportunities created and the pitfalls opened up by this disaggregated and extended supply chain?

People and organisations are innovating fast. I heard recently from a customer that they were equipping field service engineers with infra-red camera attachments for their phones to allow them to assess the heat signatures of the plant they were inspecting and that the most junior in the team had taken to using FaceTime to seek guidance from senior colleagues. The same customer has fitted HD cameras to drones to avoid the need for costly scaffolding when inspecting those awkward-to-reach places like dams and cranes.

So what’s new?

Simply this; It’s not the idea that we can connect people and things. It’s the idea that we can connect all people and things.

Is this realistic?

From the Bluetooth speaker by my bed to the Philae Lander bravely trying to re-establish contact with Rosetta we seem to have both ends of the spectrum covered. Did I say “Global”?

But there are some barriers to overcome:

  • Cost - One recent report suggested there would be 5 Billion connected devices by 2015 and 25 to 100 Billion by 2020. I’m sure that by the time this has been published the estimates will be wildly different, but whatever the final figure turns out to be, the unit price for each connection point will need to be very low indeed before mass-produced objects come with connectivity as standard.
  • Power - At a recent meeting of the Atos Scientific Community, one of our R&D team reported on novel ways of maintaining network connectivity from their car. To avoid accusations that driving at walking pace in the Paris rush hour was making it too easy, they repeated the test at 4 am. However, many of the devices we might want to connect will be in more remote locations. Pipelines cross mountains and deserts. Sensors for agriculture and forestry may need to operate far from existing infrastructure. So we need new ways to connect, ideally methods that are not over-reliant on having a convenient 110v or 240v power outlet close to hand!
  • Networks - There is no shortage of new standards for networks. Indeed, this very abundance creates a problem in its own right. So our focus should be on understanding the strategic aspects of each of the standards to ensure that it is possible to interact across different combinations of range, power and data transmission requirements.
  • Data  - Right, now we’ve got cheap devices and ubiquitous network connectivity sorted. All good. But remember my Peruvian guide friend, the African farmer, and the nomads in Siberia? It’s going to take a lot more than Google Translate before they’re all yakking away about their shared interest in Baking Cakes, You Tubers or cute kitten videos. Clearly, connecting a myriad of devices is going to create a data problem.

At Atos, we are working on a smart gateway in order to provide a dynamic way to translate messages across the boundaries of different network protocols. But we also need a standard way for objects to declare what they are, what they can do, and who is authorised to know.

Imagine if Rosetta finally managed to re-establish a clear communication with the Philae lander, then mistook it for my Bluetooth speaker and asked it to play my favourite song.

We’re going to need a shared taxonomy for the Internet of Things!

And whose data is it anyway?

It’s only mildly embarrassing if the person sitting next to you on the train sees that you have put both Radiohead and Taylor Swift on the same playlist. But how will we protect sensitive personal, commercial or citizen data across these new boundaries?

We stand at the cusp of a brand new paradigm. We have assembled many of the fundamental building blocks that will allow us to connect previously unimaginable numbers of things to reveal as yet unimagined new possibilities. But in order for practical, common-sense, people-friendly ideas to come to the fore, will need to work together to create a vision for interoperability. The alternative is that we create a cacophony of noise; a virtual tower of babel. And that would be a waste of an unprecedented opportunity.

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About Andy Wallace

Consultant, Programme Manager and Business Director at Project One
Andy Wallace is a consultant with Project One and an Alumnus of the Atos Scientific Community. With over 30 years experience in the IT Industry, Andy has delivered large and complex projects for customers in Financial Services, Energy and Public Sector clients in Europe, the Americas and Asia Pacific. Andy has specific interests in Blockchain, The Internet of Things and all things to do with Digital Business Transformation.

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