WHEB Commentary

Ty Lee

Big Brother and the ‘Internet of Things’


The Internet of Things (“IoT”) may be a fancy term but its applications are already lurking in our daily life. Since the Fukushima nuclear disaster, we can get access to real-time radiation Geiger counter readings online throughout Japan, thanks to the data from sensors provided by the government as well as individuals. Traffic data on Google Maps is another example of the IoT.

There are many definitions of the IoT. Generally speaking, the IoT refers to networks of devices equipped with sensors for data collection, data monitoring, decision-making and process optimisation. These networks are growing rapidly. Between 2011 and 2020, the number of connected devices globally is projected to increase from 9 billion to 24 billion [1].

If you look up “IoT applications” on Wikipedia, you may be surprised to find that many are related to WHEB’s environmental and social themes. These include waste management (Environmental Services theme), sustainable urban environment (Environmental Services theme), continuous care (Health theme), emergency response (Safety theme) and smart meters (Resources Efficiency theme) [2].

Let’s take healthcare as an example. As the global population ages, healthcare spending is becoming a massive government and private expense. According to the World Health Organization, the US spent 17.9% of its GDP on health care in 2011 [3]. There are studies which indicate that IoT can help to improve the quality of healthcare and reduce the costs at the same time [4]. Wireless wearable cardiovascular monitors, for example, enable early detection and timely treatment of cardiovascular events, which minimises impact on patient lifestyle and reduces healthcare costs. Machina Research estimates that the use of clinical remote monitoring will generate US$350 billion in healthcare cost savings and benefits from pre-emptive action in 2020 [1].

While IoT applications can bring lots of benefits to human lives, they also come with risks. Some of these potential issues have echoes of ‘big brother’ and include data privacy, confidentiality, ownership and transparency. Do we want our daily life to be closely monitored by sensors? Who has the authority to collect, own and analyse “our” data, (assuming we own the data in the first place)? Who has the responsibility to protect the collected data? There are many more issues that need to be addressed as technologies evolve.

The IoT is generating unprecedented amounts of sensor data, which are growing exponentially. Mobile data traffic is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 66% from 2012 to 2017. Many companies will benefit from this secular trend [5]. One of our holdings Telecity, a leading European data centre operator, has already been benefitting from the tremendous data growth. Another holding EMC also benefits from selling storage systems to data center builders and cloud service providers. EMC, together with GE, have even formed a new company ‘Pivotal’, a Big Data platform to tap into this enormous IoT market. The term IoT was proposed many years ago by Kevin Ashton in 1999, but we are only just at the beginning of the Internet of Things.

 

1 http://tinyurl.com/oxbedag

2 http://tinyurl.com/o33gouk

3 data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.XPD.TOTL.ZS

4 http://tinyurl.com/ouqad3e

5 http://tinyurl.com/b9berc

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