There is a linguistic phenomenon called semantic satiation that refers to the fact that, if you say something enough times, it loses all meaning. Could this be said of the constantly-repeated term the ‘Internet of Things’?
I’d like to discuss my own definition of the term. Then, I will ultimately consider how it compares to the industry’s consensus on what truly constitutes the IoT.
To someone who has never heard of the Internet of Things, the term would seem far from self-explanatory. The use of the word ‘Internet’ would rightly conjure up concepts of network connectivity in the layman’s mind. However, the ‘Things’ part would seem far too ambiguous. After all, isn’t everything a ‘thing’?
This ambiguity is compounded further by the fact that the term, which was first coined in 1999, has been used so ubiquitously that its acronym, the ‘IoT’, is now even more common than its full name. And that acronym can therefore, being just three letters, easily proceed tech buzzwords that are already nebulous. These include such terms as ‘IoT solutions’ and ‘IoT platforms’.
Nevertheless, the IoT is a vital part of both commercial and industrial hardware and software, and the connectivity that it offers will continue to be ever more crucial to countless users – from smart home residents to field applications engineers.
For the purpose of exploring the challenge of defining the term, I explain below my initial understanding of the Internet of Things from my various memories of covering the subject:
The Internet of Things is a network wherein interconnected nodes and smart sensors collect information from their environment. They collectively inform an overarching system, namely the embedded software chosen by the manufacturer of the given IoT hardware. This embedded software uses artificial intelligence to process its received data to act according to the requirements of its user(s) and/or the environment.
By my above definition of the IoT, a smart home could be considered a clear example of the IoT at work: the smart home’s interconnected devices – I’ll use smart speakers and smart thermostats as examples – collect data, respectively, from the user and the environment. So in this instance, such data encompasses both the voice commands of the homeowner and the temperature of the house. Specifically, take the example of the homeowner verbally commanding the smart speakers to automatically change the temperature based on whether the smart home is becoming too hot or too cold throughout the day.
Accordingly, such a collection of voice and sensor data is then sent wirelessly to, and processed by, the manufacturer’s embedded smart home software in the Cloud – so that it can use AI to meet the requirements of both the user(s) and the environment.
But am I right to suggest the above definition and example of the Internet of Things? Or, is my explanation more consistent with the terms ‘automation’, ‘smart’, ‘data-driven’ and ‘connected’ than it is with the IoT itself?
Having looked up the closest things that I can find to textbook definitions of the IoT (the exact meaning of the term has never really reached a concrete consensus particularly due to its ever-evolving nature), it would seem that my explanation of the Internet of Things is consistent with authorities on the topic. However, what I have found is that I missed one vital aspect: the fact that the IoT facilitates the situational awareness and decision making of machines and humans alike. This is by its ability to create a common operating picture (COP).
A COP is defined by JESIP (the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme) as “a common overview … that is created by assessing and fusing information from multiple sources and is shared between … coordinating groups to support joint decision-making”. In other words, a common operating picture is a collection of data and other information that is shared amongst various human and artificially intelligent decision makers to inform and enhance their situational awareness.
Academic and industry considerations
As the academic paper, ‘Internet of Things (IoT): A vision, architectural elements, and future directions’ explains:
“The proliferation of devices in a communicating-actuating network creates the Internet of Things, wherein sensors and actuators blend seamlessly with the environment around us, and the information is shared across platforms in order to develop a common operating picture.”
Again, those last three words are crucial. The IoT’s ability to establish a common operating picture (COP) is what sets the Internet of Things apart. After all, other modern internet technologies, such as Wi-Fi, can accommodate both the interoperability of multiple connected devices and automation (such as in the said smart home example) – but not a COP.
This is one of the countless reasons that the IoT is vital to mission-critical applications. These may inlcude emergency response services and military planning. As explained by Coolfire, a company that started in military communications and planning:
“The IoT … makes it possible to collect accurate data from a wealth of sources and combine that into actionable insights. With a situational awareness platform, organisations can leverage these discrete technologies to form a common operating picture … [which] establishes an informational framework that keeps decision makers … on the same page.”
The Internet of Things concluded
With all of these points considered, the best way that I can now define the IoT is as follows:
The Internet of Things is the ongoing process by which interconnected sensors and other nodes collect environmental and contextual data. The data is sent wirelessly to the Cloud and/or the Edge where it can be processed by a central and embedded artificially intelligent (AI) software. This AI system exists to achieve automation and/or machine learning, especially in terms of forming a common operating procedure (COP), which ensures better decision making from both AI agents and humans alike. This is particularly in (but not limited to) mission-critical applications.
Still, however, none of the above is meant to say that the Internet of Things has a clear definition. The evolution of the technology and its applications suggests that IoT authorities should continue to regularly update their criteria for what constitutes the Internet of Things. Only then can there be a consensus on how to contextualise such a diverse, ever-advancing technology.