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Internet of Things: Simpler than you think

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The Internet of Things is one of the latest buzzwords in the IT industry. It promises to transform how we live and work, but for some its still very difficult to understand. VINCE RESENTE, Enterprise Technology Specialist at Intel attempts to demystify the IoT.

Ah, the Internet of Things. It’s the topic on everyone’s lips – the buzzword of the year. It promises to transform the way we live and work, to free us from mundane tasks, and create entirely new jobs in entirely new industries.

Ask anyone in technology to explain the IoT and they’ll probably use words like sensors, big data and networks, and tell you how, together, these produce real-time insights and business intelligence.

No wonder the man on the street isn’t as excited about the IoT as those in the industry are. For something that is expected to have massive impacts on the lives of every person on the planet, the IoT should be easier to understand.

Demystifying the IoT

The high-level definition of the IoT is a collection of sensors that feed information into a database to make sense of things.

That’s not the most user-friendly explanation.

Let’s rather think of the IoT as a human body – we’ll call him John.

John’s central nervous system is the database and his senses (sight, smell, touch, etc) are, well, the sensors.

When information enters John’s nervous system (database) through his senses (sensors), he interprets it immediately and responds accordingly – he pulls his hand away from a hot stove; he sidesteps an uncovered manhole; he turns down the volume on the TV if it’s too loud.

The heat from the plate, the sight of the open manhole, and the TV volume is all data, which John analyses in real-time, allowing him to make instant decisions. He uses this information to protect himself by predicting outcomes before they occur – like falling into the manhole and seriously injuring himself.

Making businesses smarter

This is, in essence, how the IoT works.

Businesses in any vertical can monitor and analyse just about any variable. This analysis allows them to make better business decisions in response to changing conditions, in real time. They can also predict what is likely to happen in the future and put measures in place to protect themselves from financial loss or to better position themselves to leverage future opportunities.

These decisions – or business intelligence – keep them ahead of their competitors, help them save time and money through unnecessary downtime, and ensure their systems always perform optimally.

Let’s consider some of the variables a courier company – we’ll call it ABCDeliveries – might monitor. By monitoring traffic patterns through apps like Waze, GPS data and traffic light sensors, ABCDeliveries can calculate the fastest route between destinations, saving it time on the road and allowing it to complete more deliveries in a day, which equates to more revenue. By monitoring the weather, ABCDeliveries will know when to move packages undercover to prevent damage from rain or hail, saving it money in insurance claims.

A key aspect of the IoT is that big data is time-stamped. Traffic information from yesterday is useless to ABCDeliveries today. It needs to know what is happening right now so that it can react appropriately.

Humans as sensors

Thousands of South Africans use the IoT every day, possibly without realising it. Anyone who travels with the Waze navigation app is essentially part of a bigger IoT ecosystem.

Users opt in to share their movements and to report road hazards, faulty traffic lights and police sightings, meaning they are, essentially, the sensors that submit data – of John’s senses. This information is disseminated to other Waze users travelling on the same route.

If 20 people give a hazard report a thumbs up, it’s likely still there. If 10 give it a thumbs down, it’s probably not and Waze will remove it from the hazard list. That’s a big data decision made in real time in response to data coming in from thousands of sensors.

The effects? People are able to avoid congested roads and discover new routes that get them to work faster. Imagine how much simpler our lives will be when we can look inside our fridges from our phones while doing grocery shopping, or when we can turn on the heaters from work to arrive to a warm home in winter?

There is not a single vertical that will not benefit from the IoT, but we first need to understand how it works so that we can get more people excited about it – and more people developing for it – so we can all realise these benefits sooner.

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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