Buckminster Fuller once wrote, “there is nothing in the caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.” It’s true that often our capacity to look at things and truly understand their final form is very limited. Nor can we necessarily predict what happens when many small changes combine – when small pebbles roll down a hillside and turn in a landslide that dams a river and floods a plain.
This is the situation we face now as we try to understand the final form and impact of the Internet of Things (IoT). Countless small, technological pebbles have begun to roll down the hillside from initial implementation to full realization. In this case, the “pebbles” are the billions of sensors, actuators, and smart technologies that are rapidly forming the Internet of Things. And like the caterpillar in Fuller’s quote, the final shape of the IoT may look very different from our first guesses.
In whatever the world looks like as the IoT begins to bear full fruit, the experience of our lives will be markedly different. The world around us will not only be aware of our presence, it will know who we are, and it will react to us, often before we are even aware of it. The day-to-day process of living will change because almost every piece of technology we touch (and many we do not) will begin to tailor their behavior to our specific needs and desires. Our car will talk to our house.
Walking into a store will be very different, as the displays around us could modify their behavior based on our preferences and buying habits. The office of the future will be far more adaptive, less rigid, more connected – the building will know who we are and will be ready for us when we arrive. Everything, from the way products are built and packaged and the way our buildings and cities are managed, to the simple process of travelling around, interacting with each other, will change and change dramatically. And it’s happening now.
We’re already seeing mainstream manufacturers building IoT awareness into their products, such as Whirlpool building Internet-aware washing machines, and specialized IoT consumer tech such as LIFX light bulbs which can be managed from a smartphone and will respond to events in your house. Even toys are becoming more and more connected as our children go online at even younger ages. And while many of the consumer purchases may already be somehow “IoT” aware, we are still barely scratching the surface of the full potential of a fully connected world. The ultimate impact of the IoT will run far deeper, into the very fabric of our lives and the way we interact with the world around us.
One example is the German port of Hamburg. The Hamburg port Authority is building what they refer to as a smartPort. Literally embedding millions of sensors in everything from container handling systems to street lights – to provide data and management capabilities to move cargo through the port more efficiently, avoid traffic snarl-ups, and even predict environmental impacts through sensors that respond to noise and air pollution.
Securing all those devices and sensors will require a new way of thinking about technology and the interactions of “things,” people, and data. What we must do, then, is to adopt an approach that scales to manage the staggering numbers of these sensors and devices, while still enabling us to identify when they are under attack or being misused.
This is essentially the same problem we already face when dealing with human beings – how do I know when someone is doing something they shouldn’t? Specifically how can I identify a bad person in a crowd of law-abiding citizens?
The best answer is what I like to call, the “Vegas Solution.” Rather than adopting a model that screens every person as they enter a casino, the security folks out in Nevada watch for behavior that indicates someone is up to no good, and then respond accordingly. It’s low impact for everyone else, but works with ruthless efficiency (as anyone who has ever tried counting cards in a casino will tell you.)
This approach focuses on known behaviors and looks for anomalies. It is, at its most basic, the practical application of “identity.” If I understand the identity of the people I am watching, and as a result, their behavior, I can tell when someone is acting badly.
Now scale this up to the vast number of devices and sensors out there in the nascent IoT. If I understand the “identity” of all those washing machines, smart cars, traffic light sensors, industrial robots, and so on, I can determine what they should be doing, see when that behavior changes (even in subtle ways such as how they communicate with each other) and respond quickly when I detect something potentially bad.
The approach is sound, in fact, it’s probably the only approach that will scale to meet the complexity of all those billions upon billions of “things” that make up the IoT. The challenge of this is brought to the forefront by the fact that there must be a concept of identity applied to so many more “things” than we have ever managed before. If there is an “Internet of Everything” there will be an “Identity of Everything” to go with it? And those identities will tell us what each device is, when it was created, how it should behave, what it is capable of, and so on. There are already proposed standards for this kind of thing, such as the UK’s HyperCatstandard, which lets one device figure out what another device it can talk to actually does and therefore what kind of information it might want to share.
Where things get really interesting, however, is when we start to watch the interactions of all these identities – and especially the interactions of the “thing” identities and our own. How we humans of Internet users compared to the “things”, interact with all the devices around us will provide even more insight into our lives, wants, and behaviors. Watching how I interact with my car, and the car with the road, and so on, will help manage city traffic far more efficiently than broad brush traffic studies. Likewise, as the wearable technology I have on my person (or in my person) interacts with the sensors around me, so my experience of almost everything, from shopping to public services, can be tailored and managed more efficiently. This, ultimately is the promise of the IoT, a world that is responsive, intelligent and tailored for every situation.
As we continue to add more and more sensors and smart devices, the potential power of the IoT grows. Many small, slightly smart things have a habit of combining to perform amazing feats. Taking another example from nature, leaf-cutter ants (tiny in the extreme) nevertheless combine to form the second most complex social structures on earth (after humans) and can build staggeringly large homes.
When we combine the billions of smart devices into the final IoT, we should expect to be surprised by the final form all those interactions take, and by the complexity of the thing we create. Those things can and will work together, and how they behave will be defined by the identities we give them today.
Geoff Webb is Director of Solution Strategy at NetIQ.