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The web’s autonomic system

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Though piece published by David Watson on LinkedIn – November 2017

IoT or the Internet of Things is yet another buzzword kicking around the IT industry but, what is it all about. Perhaps the easiest way to look at is to think about something with which we are all familiar, the human body. Our conscious mind is continually processing sensory information – the things we see, hear, touch, taste and smell. Our conscious mind interprets these sensory inputs, makes decisions and records outcomes and consequences so that we can learn and lay down memories. We draw upon those memories to be able to react to new situations, to predict outcomes, basically to learn.

The internet that we are all used to is very like an extension of the conscious mind – ‘the Internet of People’ (IoP) might best describe it. People are using networked computers to communicate, collaborate and disseminate information; we are all used to websites, email, social media, content sharing and consumption. In the IoP, the internet is being used to carry out explicit instructions issued by users – yes, there may be a degree of automation, for example, setting an email to broadcast at a predetermined time of day or exposing a user to adverts relating to a website that the user has visited. These are all, fairly basic, workflow-based actions that are pre-programmed and rely on specific triggers or conditions being met.

You don’t have to remember to breathe or to make your heart beat – it’s the autonomic nervous system that takes care of that…

There is another side of the human body; the autonomic or involuntary system. This is the system that ‘keeps things going’ – you don’t have to remember to breathe or to make your heart beat, it just happens. Well actually, it’s the autonomic system that takes care of this. The autonomic system relies on a series of sensors are based at strategic locations through the body and alongside vital organs that give feedback information to the subconscious brain. Without any conscious input, the brain evaluates this information against what is normal or what is required in a specific situation and then can issue ‘commands’.  Take for example your heart rate; you need a steady controlled heart rate to send blood around your body. Your heart has a natural ‘pacemaker’ that is kept in balance at all times via two systems; one that slows your heart rate (parasympathetic activity) and one that increases it (sympathetic activity).

If your heart rate is too high, a branch of your vagus nerve releases a chemical, acetylcholine that will slow your heart rate: if your heart rate is too low, noradrenaline is released that speeds up your heart rate. The balance can be changed depending on your situation – if you are under threat, you experience the classic ‘fight or flight’ response in which the acetylcholine levels are reduced and the noradrenaline is increased, speeding up your heart rate making increasing your blood flow and therefore more oxygen available to your muscles. All of this happens without you thinking or knowing about it – even when you are unconscious or asleep.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is just like the body’s autonomic system – it connects ‘things’ that have sensors to a central system that can evaluate the information and issue regulatory commands without any conscious human intervention. At a basic level, you could have temperature sensors that feedback to a building’s environmental system to turn on the heating or air conditioning as required. At a more complex level, a road monitoring system can analyse traffic flows and alter speed limits, change the sequence of traffic lights, open up or close lanes and even re-route traffic.

The most obvious impact on individuals is the domestic application of these technologies. At the most basic level, the government is mandating the rollout of smart meters across the UK that will report utility usage back to the supply without user intervention. A spin-off of this technology is to allow the user to monitor their usage in real-time and make conscious energy-saving decisions.

‘Smart Homes’ are the next ‘big thing’. Connected devices that can automatically control your home environment in terms of heating, cooling and lighting are becoming affordable and available. Voice control of these smart devices is now available through Amazon’s Echo products and Google’s Home product – with these two tech giants in head on competition, we can expect huge leaps in this technology. The Samsung smart fridge, launched in 2016 doesn’t exactly order milk when you are running low but the built-in cameras upload internal images whenever the fridge door is closed so you can check on the companion app, if you need milk, while you are at the shops – however, it’s surely a small step.

Wearables have sensors and software that can gather information and send it to a central database for later processing. These wearable devices fall into three broad categories, fitness, health and entertainment.

The connected car is starting to take shape; Bluetooth, GPS and in-car Wi-Fi are becoming commonplace. Syncing your car with your mobile devices means you can, for example, start your car from an app on your smartwatch. You can even connect your car to your home so you can have the heating or air conditioning automatically come on as you approach home or maybe your garage door opening as you approach your driveway.

…the ultimate destination for the connected car is self-driving…

Of course, the ultimate destination for the connected car is self-driving. There is clear resistance to the concept, however, self-driving is simple making predictions based on sensory input and changing the sped and direction of the vehicle accordingly – sufficiently capable processor should be able to make judgements dispassionately, more accurately and faster than a human. Self-driving cars without a human at the wheel are to be tested on British roads as early as 2019.

Industrial applications are becoming more prevalent. Shipping companies, airlines, road hauliers and logistics organisations have been early adopters. Relatively low powered devices with minimal bandwidth requirement can report back anything from servicing and maintenance requirements, location, speed to the temperature of heat-sensitive cargo or the location of high-value art.

Existing cellular, 4g, satellite and Wi-Fi can be used but the forward-thinking Milton Keynes council has teamed up with the Open University to create the UK’s first wide area, open access machine to machine (M2M) network for IoT applications such as monitoring car parking spaces or checking when rubbish bins need emptying.

The number of connected devices is set to grow exponentially over the next few years as the technology improves and the range of applications widens, particularly with many of the tech giants putting their weight behind the development.

As the IoT grows to manage low-level systems, just like the autonomic nervous system, computer and people will have more opportunities for creativity and leisure.


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