What exactly does “the Internet of Things” mean, and what is included under its definition? How could our shift in dependence towards networking devices affect how we live in the future?

The Internet of Things (IoT) comprises the network of physical devices that can interact with the internet and with each other. Individually, internet-enabled devices have already made huge changes in the way we live our lives: even something as mundane as waiting for public transport has been made less frustrating by bus trackers and live updates in many cities. It’s speculated that the next stage of evolution will hook even more devices up to the network, potentially giving us an unprecedented level of control over our environments. However, this interconnectedness means security will become even more important, but also more unwieldy.

Improving Accessibility Through IoT

This increase in accessibility is most noticeable when it’s given to people who already face setbacks in navigating daily life. People with serious or multiple health conditions can need help for several of their activities of daily life, which means added responsibilities for family members or care staff. Housing provider Blackwood, who specialise in accessible and supported accommodation for people with diverse disabilities, are trialling a smart system called Clever Cogs, which allows their tenants to control nearly every aspect of their homes, such as heating, lighting, and drawing curtains, from a control panel. The system can also be used for Skyping with friends, family and carers, and playing media.

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Because of this, people are made more independent and don’t need to rely on a caregiver for simple tasks and reminders that can be covered by their system. Clever Cogs has various features developed for people with multiple medical needs, such as access to the caregiver scheduling system and reminders to take medication. Early pilots of this system have been very successful, with beta testers particularly commenting on the system’s ease of use. While the difference in quality of life the IoT can bring is particularly noticeable for people with additional support needs, moving forward, it’s likely that the wider population will increasingly delegate their household to internet-integrated sensors and machine-learning systems.

Another advantage of the increased awareness the IoT gives us, is that measuring data can often give rise to serendipitous discoveries. This potential was well illustrated when a Reddit user asked for advice about his wife’s Fitbit. She had been noticing elevated heart rate measurements, which another user pointed out that might mean she was pregnant: she was. Data can give us unexpected insights which we never thought to look for; as our lives become increasingly quantified, we could learn more about ourselves than we expect to.

Maintaining Privacy In An Increasingly Connected World

However, increased connectivity can often mean a reduction in privacy: the Shodan search engine, which searches networked devices, demonstrates shocking lapses in security, such as images from unencrypted baby monitors. Even if we protect our data, what we know of government surveillance programs shows that no piece of information shared via the internet can be guaranteed to be private. For people living in Clever Cogs homes, a security breach would give access to an unusually wide variety of intimate and sensitive information, including details of medical treatment and credit card data. Every connected device represents a point of vulnerability, and as the IoT gets bigger, security will be even harder to maintain.

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IoT technology looks set to enrich our lives: but what if it stops working? While it’s unlikely that anything short of a global catastrophic event could completely deactivate the internet, electrical outages can leave large areas cut off from the network. For Clever Cogs users who rely on connectivity for medical care and living support, this could be disastrous without failsafe measures. In 2010, the US government ran Cyber ShockWave, a wargame simulating a terrorist malware attack . The operation suggested that without the authority to commandeer civilian cellphones and networks, the government would have little ability to prevent such an attack. In the six years since Cyber ShockWave, our infrastructure has become increasingly networked, giving even more scope for criminal exploitation.

The possibilities opened up by IoT developments are certainly exciting. However, it’s important to remember that we’re still in the early stages of a potentially profound cultural shift, and important questions such as maintaining privacy in the face of increased connectivity as well as the fates of jobs and infrastructures rendered obsolete must be addressed. While our excitement will carry us forward, it’s important that we temper this with caution and awareness of the wider implications of an interconnected world.

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