Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Internet of Things

Michael - Thursday

The IT world seems to buzz with the invention of new names and acronyms. (Like IT = Information Technology.) One of the recent terms to gain currency is the internet of things (IoT). And unlike some of the others, this one is a big deal. So what’s in a name? Well, this one is quite apposite. We're used to the idea of the internet being about humans using computers to communicate—sometimes with other websites and databases and sometimes with other humans. IoT is about computer systems incarnated in devices, machines, or whatever communicating with each other.

The idea has been around for a while. In 1982 a modified Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon University became the first Internet-connected appliance, able to report its inventory and whether newly loaded drinks were cold. In 2013, the Global Standards Initiative on Internet of Things defined the IoT as "a global infrastructure for the information society, enabling advanced services by interconnecting (physical and virtual) things based on existing and evolving interoperable information and communication technologies," and for these purposes a "thing" is "an object of the physical world (physical things) or the information world (virtual things), which is capable of being identified and integrated into communication networks". No wonder no one took much notice. No one could understand it for a start.

So let’s take the vending machine example. It senses the amount and age of its stock and the physical status of the machine itself—temperature, state of moving parts, amount of cash on board and change available, health and safety issue. This information is transmitted over the internet to a computer somewhere—usually in the cloud, but that’s another story—that does various things. It schedules maintenance for the machine, it may move up the next delivery, even disable the machine if there's a serious problem. It will also integrate the data over all its machines and see if orders should be increased or decreased across its network. It will inform its supplier's computer (probably just some other part of the cloud) which would deal with the factory supply, ordering more (or less) materials and maybe scheduling an extra shift at the bakery.

This is not humans communicating with humans using computers. What the humans discover is an instruction to move up the maintenance of the vending machine (chosen not to add too much time cost to their current route, of course), and to stay on for an extra shift at the bakery. For now. In the not too distant future the cloud will tell an automated electric van with a suitable repair robot to head straight to the vending machine, while just briefly stepping up production at the automatic bakery…

There’s a huge wealth of advantages and efficiencies that will be generated by IoT. It's not how far will it go, but rather if it will stop. Elon Musk (apparently a bit bored with conquering space, revolutionizing the automobile industry, and changing the nature of energy supply) has a new project. Nothing less than deciphering the waves generated by the human brain, amplifying them and transmitting them, so that we can communicate that way. So the person you're 'talking' to will know what you really want and really mean. And of course, thanks to the IoT, the person you’re 'telepathically' communicating with can be anywhere at all in the world, or may even not be human at all.

Another part of the cloud will be monitoring your pace maker, your blood pressure, your diet… 

Here’s a piece a friend sent to me that sort of sparked this blog:

“Hello! Gordon's Pizza?”
“No sir, it's Google's Pizza.”
“Must be a wrong number.”
“No sir, Google bought the pizza shop.”
“OK. Here’s my order...”
“No problem sir, I suppose you want the usual?”
“The usual? How would you know? You’re under new management.”
“According to our caller ID, on the last 12 occasions you ordered pizza with cheese, sausage and thick crust.”
“…May I suggest this time you have ricotta, aragula and dried tomato?”
“No, I hate vegetables.”
“But what about your high cholesterol?”
“My high cholesterol? How would you know?”
“Through the Subscribers’ Guide. We have the results of your blood tests for the last 7 years.”
“I don’t care, I already take medicine. Give me my usual.”
“But you haven’t been taking your medicine. You last purchased a box of 30 and that was 4 months ago at Drugsale Network.”
“I bought more from another drugstore.”
“It's not showing on your credit card.”
“I paid in cash.”
“But you didn’t withdraw enough cash according to your bank statement.”
“I have another source of cash.”
“It’s not showing on your last Tax Return, unless you got it from an undeclared income source…”
“Get lost! No more Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp! I'm going to a deserted island with no internet, no cell phones and no one to spy on me!”
“I understand sir. But you will need to renew your passport, your old one expired 5 weeks ago.”

Not to be taken too seriously. For now. IoT is happening with all its advantages, but there are downsides. WIRED in an editorial summed it up: "What you're about to lose is your privacy. Actually, it's worse than that. You aren't just going to lose your privacy, you're going to have to watch the very concept of privacy be rewritten under your nose.”  And The American Civil Liberties Union wrote that "There's simply no way to forecast how these immense powers – disproportionately accumulating in the hands of corporations seeking financial advantage and governments craving ever more control – will be used. Chances are big data and the Internet of Things will make it harder for us to control our own lives, as we grow increasingly transparent to powerful corporations and government institutions that are becoming more opaque to us."

And now hacker attacks can become physical attacks as well as attacks on your data. No matter how much security you build into a computer system, someone can break in. Hackers have already demonstrated that they can hijack parts of the IoT. So far most of these attacks have been tests. Cameras have been switched on and off without the owners realizing, driverless cars ‘hijacked,’ and pacemakers switched on and off. (A new murder weapon for mystery writers!) I would guess that the Russians are spending a LOT of money on this issue and they have enormous talent for this sort of stuff. So does the USA. With all the good that can come of the IoT, we also may be witnessing the development of a new weapon on mass destruction.

Murder Is Everywhere
Author Recognitions and Events


Murder in Saint Germain, Aimée Leduc’s next investigation, launched June 6.


My next Hiro Hattori mystery, Betrayal at Iga, launched on July 11 from Seventh Street Books. 

The next Detective Kubu mystery, Dying to Live, launched this week in the UK from Orenda books.


  1. Michael, too scary to contemplate. That desert island is looking more and more attractive. Oh! Wait! It is about to be inundated by rising seas from global warming. And I am already three days past my deadline for my next book. Eee Gods. Sorry I have to run. Must finish the book before Big Brother takes over the world.

  2. I laughed at Google Pizza. Why do I have the feeling Google will have the last laugh?

  3. You omitted Elon Musk's 'invention' of the Hypertube and his current attempts to bore traffic tunnels beneath L.A.

    And don't confuse IoT with GoT, although I suspect the latter would find the former very useful for keeping track of all the characters.

  4. Congratulations on the new Kubu launch, Michael, and for giving us insight into to title for the next in the series, "Night of the Living Robots."