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The Internet of Things lets you control your world with a smartphone
Bob Miller of La Mesa nodded at a big chair in his living room and said, “Someday, I’ll be able to control my whole world from right there.”
He was holding a smartphone whose apps already let him do many things, from adjust the thermostat to run the DVR to turn on his lawn sprinklers.
Dozens of ordinary appliances and devices in and around Miller’s home are fitted with sensors that collect data that’s distributed across the Internet for processing. Technologists call these devices the Internet of Things, or IoT.
Miller controls his devices with apps or, in some cases, his voice. On a recent day, he asked his Amazon Alexa digital assistant, “How much gas is there in my wife’s car?”
He was quickly informed, “It’s 71 percent full.”
Miller is making the most of the IoT, a branch of electronics that has been growing rapidly due to advances in sensors, chips and algorithms.
No one is sure how big the market is. Gartner Inc. estimated that there were 6.4 billion IoT devices worldwide in 2016, and that the figure could rises to 20.8 billion by 2020.
But hard figures are hard to come by. And analysts say there’s been a lot of hype in the IoT industry.
It’s clear, though, that growth is occurring.
The new Amazon Alexa voice-activated personal digital assistant proved to be hugely popular during the 2016 Christmas shopping season. So did things like the Nest thermostat and the Ring video doorbell.
Almost everything is being fitted with an IoT sensor. Parents can buy “smart” toothbrushes that reveal whether their kids are actually brushing their teeth. Plant holders report whether their plants need watering. Griffin Technologies introduced a Bluetooth-enabled smart toaster and cellphone app “to offer personalized settings for the perfect slice, every time.”
Lovers can buy "smart’ condoms that do such things as measure the number of calories a person spends during sex. The results are wirelessly sent to a smartphone app.
London’s Daily Express newspaper says the device “acts like a FitBit for your genitals.”
Such products are causing a lot of buzz, often for the wrong reasons.
Tech analysts say some IoT devices collect data that can compromise a person’s privacy. And many of the products have little or no security, making them vulnerable to hacking.
The scope of the problem became evident last fall when hackers — who have yet to be identified — took control of thousands of IoT devices in homes and business and collectively used them to launch an attack on an Internet service company in New Hampshire.
The attack temporarily shutdown or disrupted dozens of top websites, including PayPal, Netflix, Airbnb, and HBO.
On balance, most of the buzz about the IoT is good, largely because the devices can help people in so many ways. The Miller household provides a good example.
Miller’s IoT sensors enable him to control or monitor 10 security cameras, all the lights in his home, the air conditioning and sound systems, Internet-based phones, the DVR, smoke detectors, power switches, water leak detectors, and lawn sprinklers.
Miller — a network computer consultant — also has two voice-activated Amazon Alexa digital assistants that are used for such things as dictating shopping lists that stream to his phone, and choosing songs from various music service providers.
Miller also has an app on his smartphone that raises his garage door and tells his Tesla automobile to roll to a pre-determined spot in his drive way. The garage door then closes.The whole thing takes about a minute.
"Home automation is becoming a realty,” Miller said. “Some devices are meant to save you a little time. Some save you money. Other devices give you peace of mind. The technology is here.
“It's up to you whether you want to embrace and use it or not."
The rise of the IoT market is due to a series of timely advances in technology.
“The price of building a product that could connect to the Internet has plummeted,” said Phil Lieberman, president of Lieberman Software Corp. in Los Angeles.
“Today, you could build one for $5. It used to cost thousands of dollars.
“The cost of wi-fi routers also came down. So has the cost of high-speed Internet connections. Then there was the rise of a whole new class of control software, like Amazon (Alexa), which can provide whole-house automation. Now, it is easier to control and coordinate these devices.
“All of this technology is wonderful and makes life more pleasurable.But you need to know what you’re doing with it to use it safely.”
Lieberman was alluding to the fact that many IoT devices have little or no security.
“I own a smart phone and that's it,” said Bruce Higgins of City Heights, who works in a store that sells smart devices.
“I don’t/won’t use them because the security on most of them is a joke. People buy these devices and think they are a toy. What they don't realize is that you have done the digital equivalent of leaving your front door open when you go away or even when you're home.
“Think of the Internet as a chainsaw — very useful when you need it, but dangerous if not handled with care.”
The problem is causing a lot of anxiety in the technology community, where industry leaders are debating whether the manufacturers of IoT devices should be required to make sure that their products have legitimate security features.
The depth of the anxiety showed up in a recent white paper issued by the Online Trust Alliance (OTA), an industry group based in Bellevue, Washington.
The paper says, in part, “Risks to one’s personal and physical safety have become reality. All too many connected devices sold, ranging from automobiles and thermostats to children’s toys and fitness devices, have insecure remote access and controls.
“By default many collect vast amounts of personal and sensitive information which may be shared and traded on the open market. The majority of these devices do not have the functionality (or an easily discoverable method) to easily remove one’s personal data.”
Henrik Christensen agrees that the privacy issues have to be worked out. The director of UC San Diego’s Contextual Robotics Institute also would like to see a bigger effort made to use the IoT for things like helping elderly people live in their own homes longer.
Christensen says that family members and friends could keep an eye on a loved one.
Christensen says that homes can be fitted with sensors that let family and friends know whether a loved one is moving around or eating, or doing other things that are part of daily life.
“You could get reassurance that normal activity is going on, or that something may be wrong and maybe you should call to see if everything is OK,” Christensen said.