The Internet of Things: how devices are learning to think

Once consigned to the realms of science fiction, the Internet of Things is gradually becoming part of our everyday lives, thanks to the latest generation of sensors and the all-pervasive nature of the internet. Personal AI assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are already able to play music by voice control and to interconnect smart lighting, thermostats and even our cars. The world of things is adapting more and more to our needs as human beings.

Georg Gross
Yasmin Ertas-Ruzic

At the sound of her name, Alexa – the personal AI assistant created by internet giant Amazon – appears to the individual user in the guise of a female voice emanating from a 25-centimeter-tall cylindrical smart speaker, the Amazon Echo. You can ask her to perform tasks such as: “Alexa, play Oasis.” At which point a glowing circle at the top of the Echo device lights up to signal that Alexa, who is always listening in the background, has now switched to active mode. She confirms the command: “Playing songs by Oasis,” and within seconds the speaker strikes up the first bars of the track Wonderwall, available to Amazon Prime customers free of charge from the online store’s music-streaming business.

Echo has been on the market for some time in the United States, while Google Home was launched towards the end of 2016. After a lengthy pre-order phase, Echo is now also available in the United Kingdom and Germany. Both of these personal assistants as well as all other comparable systems are based on the same principle: since they are permanently in trial mode, they learn more through each contact with the user. The more people talk to them, the more knowledge Alexa and company are able to accrue and store in the cloud – a server network spanning the globe. However, since these systems are still in their infancy, it means we as users may not always get the perfect answer to all of our questions.

The two smart speakers from Amazon and Google herald the long-awaited arrival of artificial intelligence (AI) in our homes – and as such the true beginning of what has been talked about for so long: the Internet of Things.

Fitness tracker Fitbit Surge transmits data to a smartphone app and provides a precise summary of the user’s athletic performance and general physical condition.

In his spare time, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg programmed Jarvis, his personal voice-controlled AI assistant, for his own smart home. But when he demonstrated it to the Facebook public in a video uploaded just before Christmas 2016, Zuckerberg rather embarrassingly had to ask Jarvis four times to switch off the lights. Teething troubles like these will soon be a thing of the past, however. The more systems like Jarvis are used, the better they are able to respond. And this is likely to be a speedy process, as one thing is certain: the two smart speaker systems from Amazon and Google herald the long-awaited arrival of artificial intelligence (AI) in the home environment. This marks the true beginning of what has been talked about for so long: the Internet of Things (IoT), which digitally interconnects all manner of electronic devices so they can be controlled via the internet.

Smart thermostats reduce heating costs

HomeKit, on the other hand, Apple’s IoT operating system for the domestic environment, currently requires users to activate the Insteon Hub – a smart home control unit in the form of a white box – by communicating via an iPhone touchscreen. If manufacturers have their way, those of us who turn our own four walls into smart homes like these will want to include Philips Hue light bulbs, a Nest thermostat and August door locks. But these objects do not need to go through an evolutionary learning phase like Alexa. Rather, they just need to understand enough to fulfil their purpose: to make the owner’s life easier, more comfortable and ultimately to save money by reducing electricity and heating usage. This can be done either by monitoring the user’s habits or adjusting thermostats on request.

Hue light bulbs can now be connected to Alexa and switched on and off by voice control. But that’s just one form of operation, since Philips also delivers the product with basic motion detectors; and Nest thermostats and security cameras are already integrated into what Amazon refers to as Alexa Skills – or what would simply be called apps if they were on your smartphone. These are the products and devices that form part of Alexa’s established repertoire. BMW also supplies its customers with Alexa Skills through the personal mobility assistant BMW Connected: as an Echo owner, you can use the app without taking out your phone or operating your smart watch; instead, from the comfort of your kitchen you can instruct Alexa by voice control to lock the car parked outside in the street, check how much fuel there is in the tank or send your next destination to your BMW.

From football to smart city

Intelligent data-sharing and devices interconnected in the Internet of Things are also conquering the world of football. Using a smart ball fitted with a microchip, the adidas miCoach app, for example, shows the perfect spot to strike a football in order to achieve the desired trajectory. And the Internet of Things is also becoming a feature of the urban and traffic environment. Much of it is simply an extension of what has been around for years, such as parking guidance systems. In Germany, for example, drivers have for decades been provided with signs showing in real time the number of spaces currently available in a particular car park; but this already commonplace idea has been taken to a new level of refinement in Barcelona – widely considered a world leader in smart-city technology – where individual parking spots on the streets are now digitally monitored so that motorists can be directed to the nearest available free parking space.

With HomeKit, Apple’s IoT operating system for the home, the user communicates via an iPhone touchscreen to activate the Insteon Hub smart home control unit.

With Google Home it will soon be possible for homeowners to tailor their domestic surroundings to their precise needs and save energy, for example by using Philips Hue light bulbs.

With Google Home it will soon be possible for homeowners to tailor their domestic surroundings to their precise needs and save energy, for example by using Philips Hue light bulbs.

The widespread realisation of the Internet of Things is possible today mainly because sensors are now much better and cheaper than they were a few years ago. For without inbuilt sensors, devices lack the intelligence to generate the data to be fed into networks for subsequent processing. And IoT opens up a whole world of new possibilities, such as Barcelona’s smart waste containers, which automatically let the authorities know when they need emptying.

More and more things have computers inside

“Computers are now inside everything. Which is why I propose a different way of looking at things: an iPhone is not a telephone, but a computer we use to make calls. A modern refrigerator is a computer that keeps things cold. An ATM is a computer with money inside. A car is no longer a mechanical device with computers on board, it’s a computer with four wheels and an engine. That is the Internet of Things,” says American cybersecurity expert, Harvard fellow and IBM consultant Bruce Schneier.

Schneier’s words are also intended as a warning: he used them to introduce his testimony as a cybersecurity expert at a hearing of the US House of Representatives on the issue of IoT security in mid-November last year. Just three weeks earlier, the American public had been shocked by a large-scale distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, which hit the internet service provider Dyn and for several hours caused major outages across US networks for heavily used websites including Amazon, Twitter, Spotify and Netflix. The attack was orchestrated by hijacking IoT devices in ordinary homes on a massive scale: undetected by any security systems, hackers used the web to infect countless private security cameras and even baby monitors with a malware called Mirai. The devices were then coordinated to create a robot network or botnet, which simultaneously bombarded the Dyn server on 21 October 2016 with so many information requests that it was temporarily forced to suspend its services due to system overload.

The problem is plain to see: as with any conventional computer, IoT devices provide access to the internet. But compared to computers and smartphones, security standards are lower, which puts these devices at risk. As Schneier sees it, establishing new standards is a shared responsibility for governments everywhere, not just in the US. And it is vital that people develop an awareness of the risks, agrees Ole Spaarmann, Head of IT at Factory Berlin’s start-up campus: “Virtually everyone owns a laptop, and you can pretty well assume that these are essentially secure – the components have all been checked and updates to the operating system are regularly available. Yet lots of people hook up their laptops to highly insecure 20-euro webcams, connect to a wifi network and in so doing unwittingly offer potential attackers access to what was basically a well-protected computer system.”

Even Facebook boss Zuckerberg confessed to the online magazine Fast Company that he spent more time making his private IoT network secure against unauthorised external access than he did programming his personal AI assistant Jarvis.

Data doesn’t get any more personal than that

At the end of the day, the key question with the Internet of Things – as with the conventional internet – concerns the masses of data generated every time we use it and the need to balance the new technology’s many advantages with data-protection issues. One of the most common IoT devices already widely in use today is the fitness tracker. But anyone who uses a Fitbit Surge, for example, automatically creates a kind of digital archive of their own physical fitness levels – and data doesn’t get any more personal than that. And even if our taste in music, which systems like Amazon Echo and Google Home develop a feeling for over time, is a little less intimate than our pulse rate, that too is part of the deal we as users enter into with IoT manufacturers. If their systems are to become smarter and more efficient, we have to allow them to get to know us better. And we do that by feeding them data. Protecting this data is ultimately the responsibility of both parties involved, the manufacturer and the user.

If this can be achieved, then the advantages of this new technology will far outweigh the potential risks. For Mark Zuckerberg, at least, smart technology has recently changed the way he perceives his home: he now sees it as a place with an identity of its own and a voice called Jarvis: “It’s really great to wake up and have someone to say good morning to – or even just to wake up and see the house waking up with you.”

The Nespresso Prodigio coffee machine can be operated via a smartphone app.