"When wireless is perfectly applied, the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole.”
The very first constituent of the IoT was an Internet-connected toaster, way back in 1990. It was a simple IP-enabled device that could be turned on and off remotely. This was the humble beginning of what is now a massive linked network of over 26 billion objects.
Early computing units were far too large to be embedded in everyday devices, and smaller computers didn’t have the power necessary to run an advanced operating system until relatively recently. However, IoT still didn’t have a name until 1999, when Kevin Ashton came up with the phrase Internet of Things.
Gradually, computing power grew, OS hardware requirements dropped, and the physical size of CPUs shrank. At the same time, wireless technology developed enough to connect a whole new frontier of products to the Internet under a vastly wider range of physical circumstances. The miniaturization and mass-production of sensors made it possible for items smaller than your thumbnail to pick up and transmit raw data cheaply and reliably.
The Internet of Things provides acting endpoints as well as the data collection and relay infrastructure, but that data still needs to be processed to be of use. It’s a little like the human body: the “things” are the appendages of the body that do stuff, and the “Internet” is the combination of our senses and the nervous system that link it all up so that information is quickly shared between the different parts of the whole. It’s a brilliant design, to be sure, but without a brain backing it up, it’s a dog that won’t hunt. Which is why network computing and IoT go hand-in-hand.
In a networked computing model, data is collected from network edges and then centrally processed before being disseminated back out to relevant nodes and workflows throughout the network. Advances in big data modeling and machine learning techniques accelerate this processing and make the whole system that much stronger. Now companies and researchers can gather a huge amount of data and mine it for insights in practically real time. You can use those insights to refine and power more efficient business practices, better social models, or new concepts and products.
Today, you’ll find IoT-enabled devices in every area of your life – from thermostats to fridges to security systems to cars and even to shopping carts. IoT is what allows you to turn on the air-conditioning at home while you’re still on the bus, and your lights to turn off automatically when no one is home. It’s estimated that by 2020, 250 objects will connect to the Internet every second, and that the IoT market will be worth $520 billion by 2021.
The Arrival of IoMT
As the Internet of Things grew bigger, it birthed self-contained sub-networks to serve different niches. The Industrial Internet of Things, for example, tightly aligned with the Industry 4.0 movement, harnesses machine sensors, big data, and automation to increase manufacturing output, make processes more efficient, reduce downtime, and extend asset lifespans. For another example, there’s the Internet of Energy, which leverages sensor-based data feedback throughout the smart grid and high energy consuming environments to improve and automate energy services and applications.
Similarly, healthcare has seen the rise of its own IoT ecosystem, comprised of an interconnected web of medical devices and technologies to improve the speed and quality of care while bettering data collection and management. This is the Internet of Medical Things, or IoMT. The Internet of Medical Things is the subset IoT technologies that exist within healthcare ecosystems. Put otherwise, IoMT refers to the mesh of connected medical devices deployed within hospital networks.
These medical devices are used to support clinical operations, medication management, remote healthcare, on-patient or in-patient monitoring and diagnostics. IoMT includes everything from a networked infusion pump to nursing workstations and smart insulin monitors. Business Insider estimates that there are around 430 million connected medical devices already in deployment worldwide, with the number continuing to rise. The IoMT market is predicted to reach $400 billion by 2022.
The Impact of IoT
It’s to be expected that healthcare will follow the path already trodden by other industries. Among other things, using big data and machine learning, businesses can predict demand with more accuracy. Their digitized supply chain can respond to that demand more quickly and dynamically and holding costs can be kept to a minimum.
At the same time, items are becoming more personalized in every industry, from car parts to clothing. For example, 3D printing means car parts can be printed on the spot for each customer. It’s no longer necessary for garages to stock multiple items, or for customers to wait for days for a part to be delivered from a distant factory.
To take another example, clothing can be ordered according to each customer’s specifications and produced almost instantly by a shorter, more agile, decentralized supply chain. This allows retailers to maintain small stocks, mostly for purposes of reference, instead of maintaining an inventory large enough to cover every size, shade, and style.
IoT promises to similarly transform healthcare through the Internet of Medical Things. With IoMT, healthcare providers can make faster, more accurate diagnoses, deliver personalized treatment regimens, and optimize standards of care. Insulin pumps, for example, can automatically deliver medication to diabetics based on ongoing, passive data collection and programmatic logic. Applying the same model more generally, outpatient care can be dramatically expanded – reducing patient costs and relieving capacity strains on hospital resources. Physicians would still be looped in as needed in the form of remote oversight, periodic checkups, and automated alert settings. The possibilities are truly enormous.
IoMT also powers smart health portals, which allow patients to consult their healthcare providers, book appointments, make payments, and check test results. When these portals connect with data provided by biosensors, doctors gain a clearer understanding of the patient’s interconnected health, so they can make better and faster diagnoses.
The Evolution of Technologies
It’s important to point out that this explosion in Internet of Things technologies and applications does not exist in a vacuum; it’s been shaped by developments in other technologies and business practices and is shaping them right back. Accordingly, some historical context is in order to help put it all into perspective.
Let’s start with the progression of technology developments and then move to look at business practices.
- The Machine Age, spanning the first half of the 20th century, saw society transformed by machinery – with design and technology advancements yielding and increasing a range of capabilities and efficiencies. Remarkably, it was early in this period that Nikolai Tesla predicted an IoT future. The Machine Age reached its peak shortly after the Second World War.
- Succeeding the Machine Age was the Digital Revolution, which starting in the late 1950s saw the mass production and adoption of digital logic circuits, making way for the proliferation of computer technology, and later mobile and Internet technologies.
- Then, beginning in the late 1970s, came the Information Age, which is less a distinct period than it is the next phase of the Digital Revolution. The defining characteristic of this stage is the shift to economies and technologies driven by “information productivity” rather than “mechanical productivity.”
- More recently, beginning in the mid-2000s, we transitioned into a third phase of the Digital Revolution. This phase is defined by Digital Transformation and powered by advances in big data, automation, virtualization, connectivity, system decentralization, and AI. As a society, we are still exploring the full potential of stage.
We’ve come a long way since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and that progress isn’t about to stop. The Internet of Things and its subset Internet of niches are reshaping the technological landscape.
Better tools and more advanced technology have brought smart devices that can measure data, send reports, and communicate independently. AI and machine learning tools can analyze the information that these devices collect, resulting in IoT and branching off to form IoMT.
Of course, technology only accounts for a third of the equation – the rest boils down to a mix of people and processes; which is where I expect we’ll be seeing the biggest changes to come regarding healthcare. Riding a wave of concurrent trends a hundred years in the making, healthcare is about to totally transform.