The Internet of Things (IoT): An Intro to your Jetsons Lifestyle

internet of things illustration by Bryan Lin

Written by Mariana Seda, Technology Services
Illustration by Bryan Lin,  Graphic Design '20

Although the flying car is still a far-off dream for high-tech aficionados, many other technologies from the 20th century’s favorite futuristic cartoon have become a reality. Smartwatches, video calls, holograms that perform, and robotic assistants of all kinds are very real and present in our lives. What facilitates the existence and accessibility of these long-awaited tech advancements? In short, the Internet of Things.

What is the IoT?

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is the interconnected network of “things” -- any technology that talks to other technology or to a person. It goes far beyond the cell phone and computer. Anything with built-in sensors and wi-fi capabilities falls into the IoT including security cameras, GPS devices, fitness bands, medical devices, “smart” appliances, and even cars.

The IoT is more than just programming technology to start up or work at a particular time (like setting your thermostat to auto-adjust in the evenings). It gives people the power and flexibility to monitor everything in their lives, collect data, analyze it, and make changes that impact everything from how effective personal sleep cycles are, to how to improve the efficiency of energy consumption across a university campus.

What happens with all of that IoT data?

With a rapidly increasing number of technologies becoming a part of the IoT, data collection, analysis, and storage are at the forefront of development.

According to IoT professionals, “data is the new oil,” says Mary Stevens, Director of IT Infrastructure at Technology Services. But, Stevens explains, much like petroleum, “data needs to be refined and productized to become valuable. It is mined like a raw resource and then it is up to researchers, analysts, and tech pros to turn it into something beneficial - something we, the consumer, want or need.”

Although the IoT has made it possible for people to simplify and optimize their lifestyles, it has also made personal data more freely accessible and collectible by the producers, vendors, and partners of these technologies.

What about security and privacy?

Security with the IoT is an issue that has improved from its “wild west” days of inception. But it requires constant research, innovation and vigilance to maintain. With recent concerns regarding security breaches at financial institutions and data privacy in general, it is no surprise that security and privacy are at the top of our minds. How much consideration is given to security when designing and engineering IoT technologies?

According to Taylor Judd, a privacy and information security specialist with Technology Services, “the biggest concern with IoT devices is the lack of updates, patches and support provided after purchase.” Computers and phones are not 100% protected, but they are designed and equipped with programs that update on a regular basis. When considering a smart Roku TV or an Amazon Alexa, for example, any built-in security measures are not necessarily updated to keep up with the constant evolution of technology and security threats. At the end of the day, “the goal for these smart tech companies,” says Judd, “is to sell, not protect.”

Although there are some more recent advancements in IoT security such as increased password protections for wireless networks, there remain smart tech producers that don’t bother to protect their devices because security makes them more costly to produce. “These devices are made for very small and focused purposes,” explains Bob Heren with Technology Services Privacy and Security, “The companies will compromise security and privacy for cheaper and easier-to-use devices.” Needless to say, this is not a sustainable approach.

Ultimately, all of this is consumer-driven. When consumers demand better security protections and support for their devices, then investors and vendors will start to make that a priority.

The Bigger Picture: What is the future of IoT?

As advances continue in this field, the goal of “smart” technology will continue to move from entertainment and data collection, to improving quality and variety of life.

Wearable technology can track our steps, inactivity, and sleep cycles, and give us tools and knowledge to improve our health and lives. But what if it could also help us earn college degrees in a shorter timeframe and less expensive manner that wouldn’t diminish the quality of an educational experience granted by a full-time, four-year undergraduate degree?

In the medical tech field, new devices are being developed that can track blood sugar levels in diabetics discreetly, count white blood cells in chemotherapy patients, and monitor the breathing and heart rates of sick babies. Will early cancer detection be the next IoT dependant device?

At this time, tech companies and data analysts use their data to improve upon and invent new technologies that more people want to buy. But if consumers had access to their own data along with viable methods for analyzing it, what unimagined technological innovations would they come up with to improve their lives and futures?

Smart Campus: IoT in higher education

You may have heard of “smart cities” and the emerging advancements used to maximize efficiencies of resources and save money. Well, a campus is a lot like a small city. Here at Illinois, most campus buildings are equipped with sensors and flow meters that track energy and water use. This information is compiled and shared on the Illini Energy Dashboard for anyone to see.

Advancements in agriculture technology allow students and researchers to use sensors in fields and farms to monitor incremental changes in soil, elevation, weather and more to improve data on how best to grow food and detect potential challenges earlier than ever before.

With the exception of safety standards like security cameras, IoT-based technology is not fully integrated on the Illinois campus. Tracy Whittaker with Technology Services reveals “we are just starting to do some experimentation with IoT in the classroom by integrating Amazon Echo as a handsfree way to use all the classroom technology already available in the rooms. The idea is to “enhance the media in order to enhance the learning.”

On a broader scale, some institutions are incorporating IoT tech for enhanced distance learning. Oral Roberts University for example, has a fleet of telepresent robotic devices which are basically remotely controlled Segway Transporters with attached tablets.

Telepresent robotic devices are ideal for the non-traditional student who cannot make it to class physically such as a deployed member of the military, a student with mobility challenges due to a disability or medical treatment like chemotherapy, or even a mother with young children. It is the next closest thing to actually being in the classroom. The ability of the remote student to control where the robot goes, what it does, and how it interacts with others helps provide a more present experience than even online learning offers. “Ten years ago these were toys,” says Stevens, “now they are serious tools for success and progress in institutions.”

It seems that the next era of IoT is here, and the focus is less on entertainment and more on enhancing the human experience by improving health, education, scientific understanding, and overall quality of life. Although, hopefully, the food-a-rac-a-cycle is right around the corner.