What is the Internet of Things, exactly? 10 quick things to know

Most simply, the Internet of Things refers to any object or device that connects to the Internet to automatically send and receive data.

For some, that represents an enormous, looming web of cybersecurity vulnerabilities. For others, it is a huge step forward in using computers to help improve quality of life.

Here are 10 things to know about the Internet of Things.

1. Kevin Ashton, then cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center, claims to have coined the term in 1999 when he used it as the title of a presentation made at Proctor & Gamble on radio-frequency identification. At that time, computers and the internet were wholly dependent on humans for the information they received, sent and used. However, human time, attention and efficiency is limited, he wrote in an article for RFID Journal.

Mr. Ashton's initial thought was that if computers could eventually be engineered to gather and use data independently of humans, everything could be streamlined and tracked, resulting in reduced waste, cost and improved outcomes in all aspects of life.

2. Between 2003 and 2004, the IoT was used more and more in the mainstream media, being picked up in publications such as The Guardian and the Boston Globe. They used the term in reference to tiny radio frequency-powered microchips that were expected to eventually act connections to the internet of things. In 2008, the first Internet of Things conference was held in Zurich, Germany.

3. In healthcare, the IoT relates to the widespread use and interconnectivity of devices. Mobile health and wearable technology adoption promise revolutionary cost savings, improved patient outcomes and also boast significant population health management dividends as they enable more efficient collection of data. These devices may allow faster detection and response time to illness or adverse events, exponentially improved prevention and huge savings all around. When these smart devices — including in-hospital technologies linked up to wireless networks — reach their full potential, they will engage in a continual, wireless exchange of data that automatically refreshes itself.

4. Here are the top 10 countries by number of IoT-ready devices online per 100 inhabitants in 2015, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development:

• South Korea — 37.9
• Denmark — 32.7
• Switzerland — 29
• United States — 24.9
• Netherlands — 24.7
• Germany — 22.4
• Sweden — 21.9
• Spain — 19.9
• France — 17.6
• Portugal — 16.2

5. The International Telecommuncation Union Telecommuncation Standardization Sector defines IoT as "a global infrastructure for the information society, enabling advanced services by interconnecting (physical and virtual) things based on existing and evolving interoperable information and communication technologies."

The ITU-T published its first report on the IoT in November 2005, which explored "embedded intelligence" and the market opportunities and concerns for such devices. In July, the ITU-T concluded the activities of its Internet of Things Global Standards Initiative, following the establishment of a new study group aimed at developing a set of technical standards that would enable the IoT on a global scale.

6. While estimates vary, Business Insider reports that by 2019, the IoT market will result in $1.7 trillion in value added to the global economy.

7. The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held it's first-ever hearing on the IoT in February. The hearing, titled The Connected World: Examining the Internet of Things, included focuses on finding a balance between IoT adoption and usage and cybersecurity concerns. At the meeting, Committee Chairman Sen. John Thune (R-SD) said the IoT may be the most important trend in technology today and could hold the promise of economic growth in most sectors.

"By now all of us are very used to having at least one or two electronic items near us that are connected to the internet — computers, phones, TVs. Increasingly, however, we're seeing common, everyday objects being connected online, a literal internet of things that will soon be ubiquitous," Sen. Thune said. "These things unobtrusively gather data and communicate with users and with other devices to solve a variety of consumer and business needs. Some have argued the internet of things is the third wave of the internet, following the fixed internet of the 1990s and the mobile internet of the 2000s."

8. In The Internet of Things and Healthcare Policy Principles, the Senate Committee on Aging laid out three emerging categories for IoT in healthcare using examples of existing products for each:

• Person to Person: Boston-based Mimo developed an infant monitor that wirelessly sends real-time information to parents' smartphones about the baby's breathing, skin temperature, sleeping position and activity level.
• Person to Computer: San Francisco-based Vigilant developed a smart insulin injection tracker to help diabetic patients manage their health. The tracker features an electronic cap that fits most insulin pens and wirelessly transmits injection data to a smartphone app.
• Person as Computer: Kitchener, Ontario-based Thalmic Labs developed an armband that uses electrical activity in the muscles to wirelessly control digital technology such as computers and smartphones.

9. In December 2014, the Center for Data Innovation published its 10 Policy Principles for Unlocking the Potential of the Internet of Things guideline. If policymakers hope to maximize the considerable promise of the IoT, they must avoid two conflicting approaches: leaving it completely up the market or imposing precautionary regulations.

10. For all of its promise and the dearth of media coverage it has received this year, the Internet of Things has a handful of major logistical, legislative and technical challenges to overcome before every device is micro-chipped and reports data wirelessly while we go about our business. Shared standards, such as those the Center for Data Innovation and the ITU-T hope to foster, will be necessary.

Additionally, who has access to data and where and how it is stored will require more strict security standards. The IoT works based on the concept that sharing more data yields bigger and better results, but there are certain types of information users will opt to keep private. Who will keep that data safe and how?

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