Fear or embrace IoT? Just be careful

IoT, or Internet of Things, as it has come to be known, has been growing over the last years from a mere talk between techies to 2015 being called by mainstream media as the Year of IoT. No doubt, CES 2016 in Las Vegas was full of new connected devices, backbone services, and flashy new applications for your home, wearables, and cars.

As a starters, ‘internet-connected things’ are nothing new, but there are certainly a number of things that have fueled the current BOOM: IPv6 allowing an almost unlimited number of devices to be connected to a network, the four largest global network providers allowing IoT network modification for faster and more simple connectivity, not to mention the fantastic estimates of GE or Cisco about the potential growth of this market, making it the largest growth in the history of Humans. Obviously, the media has launched themselves into a frenzy to declare an absolute win for this market.

Now, let’s rewind about a hundred years when Mr. Ford created the Model T. This incredible entrepreneur had created one of the most important machines of our Era, but it took over half a century for the US to build the Interstate Highway system, thus allowing this machine to come and communicate people across the country fast and efficiently therefore producing an unprecedented growth in the auto industry. Similarly, the connected devices have been awaiting for the network to be ready. See the similarity?

Wait…, is it all good and well then?

“Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.”

– Christian Lous Lange

About fifteen years ago I was heavily involved in the Home and Building Automation industry in Europe, developing the market in Spain, and across Europe. What today is called ‘smart homes’. Yes, fifteen years ago we deployed hundreds of ‘automated’ electrical installations both in private homes, residential towers, commercial buildings, etc. There is even a Standard developed to manage those networks and systems, both at EN level as well as ISO/IEC. Developing a Standard to rule the industry was key for the development of this market, but even then, the technology was not trouble-free.

This is how one of those ‘smart home’ or ‘smart building’ installation works:

  1. Replace the traditional dumb devices that control the different systems (lighting, heating, blinds, access control, machinery, etc), with ‘smart’ devices – this is, devices which have a small chip to control the communication over a network system (KNX in EU, LonWorks in US, mostly)
  2. Connect these new devices with a Bus – this is a network cable or wireless (twisted pair, ethernet, fiber optics, wifi, RF, etc), to allow them to communicate. Careful if you decide to go wireless; wifi, bluetooth, IR are spotty, and you don’t want the master bedroom or baby room main light to turn ‘on’ by error at 3am. Your spouse will surely kindly ask you to remove all that fancy tech next morning
  3. If your customer wants to remotely control the installation (from your smartphone, tablet, computer, or touchscreen), then install an ‘IP-gateway’, to allow the communication to leave the safety of the local KNX or LON network and go into the wild in the internet
  4. Connect your PC-based Software (e.g. for KNX, this is the ETS) to one of those devices via cable: RS232 typically, now USB…, and download the programming for each device and the logic of the communications, priorities, etc. That’s called ‘commissioning’
  5. Test all those devices in all possible scenarios which the customer requested. Then proceed to cross your fingers that ‘Ghosts’ doesn’t appear in that installation.
  6. Unfortunately, get a call from the Maintenance Manager (e.g. spouse, or actual manager), kindly asking your technician to go fix whatever strange problem is driving the unfortunate user nuts

Granted – not all installations face these ‘ghosts’, but many do, and the ‘commissioning’ phase typically extends over a fairly large period of time. And this is even when all devices have been certified by an independent organization to ensure they work properly, that they have the security architecture that is required, and that the professionals working in the industry have the proper training and certifications.

You might also be tempted to think that technology has improved over the years, sensors have become more accurate and smarter, and so forth. And yes, you’re probably right… but the key in this issue is not the technology, but the interaction between technology and humans.

“Only two things are infinite, the Universe and Human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

– Albert Einstein

Humans are unpredictable. Our lives change constantly. We do mistakes. We do things that doesn’t make sense. This makes the smart systems in homes and buildings struggle with us, humans.

Let me give you an example: a client requested a lighting system that automatically turned on and off the lights in most of the house by movement sensors. The main living room, and bedrooms were left out of this for obvious reasons. Bathrooms were controlled by presence detectors with a possibility to overwrite this with a push button (don’t want to be in the shower when lights go off). All good and customer was happy when all was said and done. Until they bought a dog. Next, a call. Next, reprogram the whole system and disable the movement sensors (yes, dogs are awake during the night…). End result: customer unhappy and feeling that the technology in their home didn’t work properly. Stupid? Maybe. Human? Absolutely. And this is just one example out of many more anyone in the industry can relate to.

So, looking backwards almost fifteen years ago, I both fear and embrace IoT, both in our personal space as well as in the business world. We shouldn’t set expectations too high for this new industry, whether this is ‘just’ wearables, webcams or smartphones, or a heavy M2M which controls and manages truck fleets across the world, or V2V technology that is supposed to communicate vehicles to avoid collisions.

There are obvious and almost unlimited benefits IoT can bring to our society (not to mention economic benefits). However, we must be careful not to let this technology unprotected and managed by no-one. In the same way the KNX Association certifies all devices to comply with the minimum technical, security and compatibility requirements to work with other KNX devices, an independent entity should be responsible to ensure the devices who operate under the IoT umbrella comply with a certain set of requirements. This is not only convenient, but critical to ensure the devices are not hacked, used for nefarious purposes, or mishandled by the wrong people. There will always be the possibility that a web-connected device might be hacked, but reading recently and article about how a web-crawler posts on the web thousands of images of unprotected webcams all across the world just makes me shiver and wonder what will be next when someone takes control of more critical web-connected devices.

Any new market brings new opportunities, and the IoT is both a massive opportunity and risk. Canada should take a leading role at defining a set of rules in international organization such as ISO/IEC (Note: this organization is already working on a set of rules for IoT: Architecture, Supply Chain, etc. Is Canada involved? At what level?). Based on my experience, the countries who actively participate defining the rules commanding this industry will dominate this upcoming revolution.

If Canada wants to play a key role in the Industrial Revolution 2.0, it must be in the table not only setting the rules, but bending them in our favor, training the professionals who will rule it, and encouraging key corporations and entrepeneurs to set foot in our shores with an appropriate regulatory and migratory policies. Do you think your country or company is ready for it? And what about you, are you ready professionally?


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