20 years of IoT

In 1999, Kevin Ashton coined the phrase ‘the Internet of Things’ (IoT) to introduce the then revolutionary idea of connecting machines to the Internet so that they could share information with each other and with humans. In this way, machines would become, in Ashton’s words, “humanity’s nervous system.” On the IoT’s twentieth birthday we discuss the vision of the father of the IoT.

The Birmingham-born technologist originally used the Internet of Things as the title for a presentation he was giving at Procter & Gamble, where he was leading pioneering work on radio-frequency identification (RFID) and sensor technologies. Like all truly revolutionary ideas, the one he was introducing was simple yet ground-breaking—to link the RFID in Proctor & Gamble’s supply chain to the Internet, allowing machines to share relevant data that could be used to monitor their performances and optimise production.

From that presentation, Ashton went on to cofound the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose goal was to develop a global RFID-based item identification system. The Center has now evolved into the Auto-ID Labs, a research group of seven universities on four different continents that continue to explore the potential of connected devices.

The IoT as a ten-year-old

Promising as it sounded, the idea of a world where the Internet could help improve every aspect of society, from healthcare to manufacturing, took several years to be fully understood and implemented.

In 2009, Ashton noted that, even if the phrase Internet of Things was by then widely used, his broader vision remained unfulfilled. “Today computers—and, therefore, the Internet—are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information,” he wrote on the RFID Journal. “We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves.”

What Ashton meant, was that while everybody understood the potential of the Internet to spread information, few were aware of the critical role of sensors in gathering data. At the time, nearly all data available on the Internet were in fact gathered and shared by humans, whether by typing or scanning and uploading pictures and bar codes. This had a major shortcoming—humans’ limited time, accuracy and attention span.

Ashton claimed that while people are great at working with ideas, they are no good at collecting data about the physical world, which contains many billion times more information than we can possibly type or scan. He advocated therefore a broader use of RFID and sensor technologies to enable computers to understand the world without the limitations of human-entered data.

The contemporary scene

In a recent interview for the Smithsonian Magazine, Ashton shared his excitement for the fact that the IoT has finally empowered computers to sense the world for themselves. One decade ago, computers were like brains without senses, since they could only process information that we provided. Networked sensors have provided machines with the eyes and ears they were missing, allowing them to gather data in a much more efficient way.

In less than two decades, the IoT has driven the development of technologies that are so ingrained in our daily lives that we take them for granted, such as the GPS systems on our mobiles. Meanwhile, plant managers have realised the enormous potential of connectivity to monitor and optimise their production lines. This has led to the emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the concept that is driving the fourth industrial revolution and shifting the landscape of manufacturing.

Now, the real challenge is to use data to address real business needs, especially in the face of rapidly changing consumer expectations. Data scientists play a central role in this phase – computers can finally sense the world and communicate with each other, but people are needed to understand them and act accordingly.