But a lot of important questions still need answers.
The Internet of Things – connecting to the Internet everything from pipelines to your refrigerator – is a hot topic right now. But the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center (ATARC) thinks it should actually be called the Internet of Everything, or IoE, since it is getting easier and easier to imagine a world where billions of devices, instruments, machines, and gadgets are communicating, with little or no human input.
At its Federal Internet of Everything Summit in November, ATARC’s panelists addressed the current and potential impact of IoE on the federal government, the challenge of cybersecurity in a world where everything is connected, and future of cyber physical systems.
In his keynote, David Bray, 2015 Eisenhower Fellow and CIO for the Federal Communications Commission, noted that in 1994, mobile network coverage for the world was just 0.01% – by this year, coverage is 95%.
Bray said the same kind of exponential growth can be expected for IoE, but there are a host of important questions that need to be addressed.
For instance, he asked, “What protocols will ‘win’ with IoE? What legacy support ends with IoE? How best to do open source IoE?” Here Bray paused and wondered aloud, what will be the equivalent of Android OS on the IoE? And how will IoE affect machine learning – and vice versa? Which companies will survive the transition to IoE? What are the best public service uses of IoE?
In other words, while companies may be racing to find ways to connect their products to the Internet, right now there are no rules, no standards, and no way of knowing the consequences of making decisions today that will set the framework for the future.
Bray observed that the Gutenberg printing press was invented in 1440. “Nation-states arose because of that,” he said. With that as an example, he offered three predictions about the future.
First, IoE will challenge traditional notions of organizational and national boundaries. If devices all over the world are connected, what meaning do those boundaries have? Can multiple organizations “timeshare” IoE devices, and their flow of data?
Second, IoE will require more bottom-up management. “Companies are very good acting on events, but not good doing it in a timely fashion,” he said, which conflicts with the very purpose of IoE – to get useful information in real time and be able to act on it. “Organizations [will become] cell-like rather than hierarchical.”
Finally, “IoE will change how we work and play, but also how we volunteer and collaborate as members of the global society.”
The first panel of the day, “The Impact of IoE on the Federal Government,” included Bray; Andrew Jacobs, Branch Chief, HIT Innovations Strategy & Planning, Defense Health Agency; John Sprague, NASA Deputy CTO for Information Technology and End User Architect; and Michael Valivullah, CTO for the Agriculture Department’s National Agriculture Statistics Service.
“You’ve probably heard of precision medicine – there’s something called precision agriculture,” Valivullah said. Sensors put in farm fields measure moisture, temperature, and other factors, while sensors in the cabs of farm equipment measure how many bushels are harvested, or scan where the crops are ripe for harvest. Satellite images can estimate the health of crops.
“All of this information is being collected today, and more and more farmers are using these sensors to target their fields,” he said. “The sensors used to be very expensive and were only used by [agribusiness]; now, because of their decreasing price, family farmers are using sensors to target particular areas of their farms, or entire fields – they don’t have to walk them.”
From USDA’s perspective, being able to get information directly from the sensors means agents don’t have to interrupt the farmers’ work to ask these questions, so it puts less burden on them and saves taxpayers money, Valivullah said. But this creates new challenges.
One problem is that different sensors use different cloud platforms, he said. Additionally, “there is no standardization, no common APIs.”
The concept of data ownership arises, along with questions of reliability – how can the government be sure it hasn’t been modified, and how can the government protect it, Valivullah said.
DHA’s Jacobs said that IoE is extremely important to his agency, as it is in the healthcare industry generally. “From a tele-health perspective, enabling technology could bring a lot for us,” he said.
Among the challenges IoE poses for DHA, though, is that the agency provides combat support. Using IoE in a combat theater poses all kinds of problems, from information security to bandwidth requirements. And in today’s combat environment, troops from allied nations are likely to be involved. “We can’t assume other nation-states will have the same sophistication as us,” Jacobs said.
Students in programs partnering with NASA recently used streaming sensors on a rocket to gather data that was transmitted back to Earth during flight, Sprague said. Their information is being used to look at how a rocket’s heat shield performs in a very thin atmosphere.
“We’ve got another mission coming up using the same protocols,” he said. “It’s very inexpensive technology and we’re reusing it for space. That’s the ultimate, lowering the cost and reusing the technology.”
One problem that NASA is wrestling with is the vast quantities of data. “The data streams are immense,” he said.
All four speakers agreed that IoE needs to be open-source. “We really don’t want to build anything purpose-built,” Sprague said as his colleagues nodded.
The FCC’s Bray said this reinforces his observation about IoE needing more bottom-up control. “This is why it can’t be top-down any more,” he said. If employees find something interesting in the data, they need to be able to act on it.
Hanging over the conference was the specter of security.
“Our big issue is [that] now is the critical window to get security into these devices,” said Tom Suder, president of ATARC. If you go back and look at the history of the Internet, all the way back to the creation of ARPAnet, “goal number one was survival despite the failure of some components … The Internet we have today is the consequence of the prioritization of those goals.” Security wasn’t even on the list, he said.
“Are we thinking now about security, or are we creating a scenario where 20 or 30 years from now we’ll be having a conference like this” about IoE security, he added.
“Security is a tough sell. It’s like insurance – nobody is excited to write you that check,” said Doug Britton, Venture Advisor, University of Maryland College of Engineering. It is particularly difficult because there is no architecture, no standards, and no one has any idea how to secure everything – a real problem for an Internet of Everything.
Another challenge is finding the money to develop security products. In our market-driven world, “the investor community is focused on the next big home run. They want to put money in things that’ll be the next billion-dollar product,” Britton added.
Those focused on creating the next big thing don’t have the security awareness or skill sets to address the problem, he said. “Somebody is going to start a company, build a wearable, download a kernel, build a little code, [and] think they’re secure. There is absolutely zero accountability for the layer of understanding … The level of mechanical understanding that people need to understand how bits and bytes work, to understand how a patch works on their code, is not there. [We’ve] created a surveillance network for 7-year-olds.”
Eric Simmon, Senior Scientist, Cyber Infrastructure Group, National Institute of Standards and Technology, said he spends his time working on IoE and cyber physical systems (CPS). When those two terms were coined, he said, they meant different things – CPS meant sensors, while IoT referred to things like barcodes that could be scanned in and tracked.
“Now we talk about a connected world where sensors and actuators are available and can be connected dynamically,” Simmon said. “What I’m doing is working on architecture … We need to understand and come up with what the common terms and common architecture framework are, so we can understand interoperability.”
For the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Roy Olsson, the IoT program manager, the challenge is “untethering IoT.”
“We spent about the last 10 years developing wireless sensors,” he said. “If we’re really going to put out low-cost sensors” to monitor infrastructure such as bridges and pipelines, “we want to be able to do it in places without power and last a long time.”
He said DARPA is looking at using the power in radio transmissions to actually power the sensors. But that also means the sensors have to be much smarter. “How do we manage all this data – first, take all this raw data at the sensors and do the [sorting there],” he said. “There’s not enough bandwidth [or power] to get it all back to the network.”
The most visible example of IoT these days is the driverless car concept. “The driverless car is a connected vehicle,” said Ray Resendes, executive director, National Capitol Region, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “It needs to get information from the outside environment, but it also needs to be talking to somebody, it also needs to know a lot about the outside environment beyond what it can sense.”
Resendes pointed out that the regular car that someone buys new today is going to last for 20 years. That means cars and drivers will be in a mixed environment for a long time, where some cars are driven, others drive themselves.
“A lot of public education needs to go on, both for operators of these vehicles and the public,” he said.