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PHOTO: Jason Leung

New technologies often get slapped with an easy to understand label so we can talk about them. Eventually, they become so established that the original term loses its meaning.

In the beginning, the label helps experts and laypeople alike. Quickly, though, the language needs to become much more specific if the field is going to advance. The need to have one label remains, as it will always be necessary to describe the respective field in the abstract, which is what the label represents.

We've seen this dynamic play out with the internet of things (IoT), which has developed a broad range of use cases over the decades (decades of miniaturization, which saw what we initially called “telemetry” turn into “telematics,” then “machine-to-machine,” then “IoT”). These use cases are as diverse as those falling under the artificial intelligence (AI) label these days. IoT applications include:

  • Voice-controlled light bulbs, door locks, thermostats at home: to make living more comfortable.
  • Fitness equipment in the gym reporting parts that need replacement: to reduce maintenance cost and increase equipment utilization.
  • Public garbage cans reporting their filling status to the local authorities: to optimize truck routes and save cost.
  • Commercial grade coffee machines reporting their filling status to coffee shop owners: to ensure happy, caffeine-fixed customers at all times, and increase revenue.
  • Sensors attached to cows to track their movement and behavior: to optimize farming outputs.
  • Meeting rooms in large offices reporting their occupancy in real-time: to optimize worker efficiency.
  • Motors and other manufacturing machines sending vibration data to predict upcoming maintenance needs: to save cost.
  • Deliveries (e.g. of perishables) reporting their whereabouts while being transported through the world: to reduce theft, waste, losses.
  • Devices tracking our (or our horses’) vital signs and reporting data to our doctors: to make us healthier.
  • Vehicles driving on their own: to ... I can’t even begin to put into words what this will do to the world.
  • Etc.

Many of the use cases lie outside of the consumer’s immediate purview. Businesses are the apparent beneficiary in most cases, or at least benefit much more directly, from IoT technologies than consumers. That is probably why the push to find more concrete and evolved terms for this field feels less pressing for the general public than in the case of AI.

Explaining IoT in Plain Language

Because these terms rarely go away, people in associated fields occasionally get asked what they really mean: “What is IoT? What does it do?” Questions like these should sound quite familiar to anyone working in specialized fields.

With IoT, most definitions or descriptions are unsurprisingly fairly technical in nature, such as this one from Wikipedia:“The Internet of things (IoT) is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.”

Or this one from Encyclopædia Britannica: "... a vast network of physical objects with embedded microchips, sensors, and communications capabilities that link people, machines, and entire systems through the Internet.”

Or Gartner's: “The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects that contain embedded technology to communicate and sense or interact with their internal states or the external environment.” 

None of these are technically wrong. All sources go on to explain use cases and do a good job of outlining what IoT technologies do. However, I haven’t found an explanation that tries to approach it from the perspective of encouraging a layperson to let their imagination flow freely about what a broadly implemented IoT's potential could be. So here’s my attempt at explaining IoT in terms a fifth-grader would understand.

Related Article: Internet of Things Name: Stupid or Brilliant?

IoT Gives Everything Language

When a baby is born, they have a voice, but they don't have language. They can tell us that something is wrong when they cry, but only their parent will know, after some time, what specifically is wrong. Until they have language, their inner life is largely hidden from us. With language, they can tell us how they are and what they need in order to be well (again).

IoT aims to give all the things in the world — human made or not — language. Language to tell us about how these things are doing, and what they might need to continue to operate well. But also language so we can tell them what to do.

So just like a baby acquires language to make themselves heard and understood, IoT gives language to the things in this world. “Things” can be objects we built, such as garbage cans, treadmills, coffee machines. Endowed with “language,” they can now tell us when they are full (“pick me up!”) or empty (“refill me!”), or when they might need a new belt (“I’ll fall apart soon!”). Before IoT, we had to open these things and look under the hood to see for ourselves. Now they can just tell us.

Things can also be animals, such as cows equipped with motion sensors, or dogs equipped with GPS antennas or step counters. Things can be rivers or lakes equipped with water level gauges, or sensors measuring water quality. IoT lets them tell us about their inner life. We don’t need to be there to open them up and look inside. 

One piece in our analogy is still missing: these things not only can tell us about themselves, but they are also connected to the internet. So let’s just say this step gives the things a telephone.

Now we don’t even need to be physically present anymore — they can just call us! And we can call them.

From a distance, we can tell them to open the front door to let the cat sitter in while we’re on vacation, or dim the lights a bit while we’re sitting on the couch, or stop the sprinkler outside. We can use our voice, our language to do that: we can speak English to them. Doing all this is a positive thing, as it lets us make sure things continue to operate and aren't in danger of breaking down soon. That makes life easier, saves us money, makes businesses more efficient, is good for the environment and even creates ideas for whole new business models.

Related Article: The Governance and Ownership of the IoT

So What Can the IoT Do?

Essentially that's what IoT is all about: it lets things, animals and nature talk to us, even from a distance, in a language we and they easily understand. Now let’s let our imagination run wild. What else could we give language to?

  • How about a mailbox to tell us when someone put mail inside, so we don’t have to walk to the front gate in vain?
  • Or a watch that tells us where our uncle with Alzheimers is at all times, and whether he is stationary, moving, or, God forbid, he fell?
  • Renting out your home? What about a front door that automatically lets anyone in for a self-tour, and whose inside walls tell us when someone is currently viewing the property, who it is and when they leave?
  • What about a sick Thoroughbred? Could we give her “language” to tell the vet her heart rate and blood pressure at all times?
  • What if supermarkets could just give each and every product in its aisles the ability to tell them who picked it up and left the store with it? That would allow us to simply walk in, grab something and leave, and everything would be paid for.  

All of this can and is already being done.

A simple analogy like the one I outlined above won’t necessarily help advance the field. But maybe it proves to be the type of, well, “language” that makes the IoT conversation accessible so even fifth graders can think about what we can do with that technology we once decided to call the “Internet of Things.”