Primer

Clearing the cloud of confusion over the Internet of Things

This is the fourth of 12 primers on current affairs issues that are part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

It is a simple question that most people have no idea how to answer.

What exactly is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

As recently as five years ago, a survey of 2,000 people in the United States by digital marketing agency Acquity Group found that 87 per cent had not even heard of IoT prior to the survey.

And yet, IoT is already a present reality. Estimates put the number of IoT devices worldwide last year at anywhere from seven billion to 10 billion, and it could climb to 25 billion by 2021.

The global IoT market is predicted to be worth US$1.7 trillion (S$2.3 trillion) this year, according to global research company Statista. That is nearly five times what Singapore's gross domestic product was last year.

Part of the problem lies with the term itself, which is needlessly confusing. Simply put, the Internet of Things is a network of everyday items each embedded with a sensor that provides information about the item's activity and its environment.

The items can be anything at all: from industrial machines used in manufacturing to smartphones, ATMs and refrigerators.

Once the information is collected, the real work of figuring out how to use it begins, something which again is a mystery to most.

Local coffee chain Crown Coffee launched the first robot barista in Singapore in 2017. The robot uses facial recognition to recognise repeat customers and tracks their consumption patterns, but the chain's founder Keith Tan (left) says that the firm
Local coffee chain Crown Coffee launched the first robot barista in Singapore in 2017. The robot uses facial recognition to recognise repeat customers and tracks their consumption patterns, but the chain's founder Keith Tan says that the firm had to build its own back-end system to make sense of the data collected. PHOTO: LIANHE WANBAO

  • About The Big Quiz

  • On Mondays, for 12 weeks from April 1 to Aug 5, this paper's journalists will address burning questions in the Opinion section, offering unique Singaporean perspectives on complex issues.

    The primers are part of the outreach of The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz, or The Big Quiz, which aims to promote an understanding of local and global issues among pre-university students.

    The primers will broach contemporary issues, such as the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs and the workplace, and how fast fashion is affecting the environment.

    They also include the issue of fake news and the legislation against misinformation and disinformation, and an examination of the balance between national progress and the preservation of heritage.

    Each primer topic will give a local perspective to help students draw links back to the issues' implications for Singaporeans.

    For the second year, The Big Quiz will be online, allowing all pre-university students to take part in the current affairs competition over three online quiz rounds on April 15, May 13 and July 29.

    The online quizzes are based on the primer topics and will be available for two weeks from the start date of each quiz.

    The nationwide event is jointly organised by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education.

    Students may attempt The Big Quiz Online at http://str.sg/ozLj

The murky understanding of IoT also has significant implications for privacy and data protection. To have a meaningful conversation about what information should or should not be tracked, governments and citizens have to understand what is at stake.

STRANGER THINGS

The term IoT is arguably too simple for its own good, so much so that it has become baffling.

IoT was coined in 1999 by British technologist Kevin Ashton at a time when the Internet was as much of a buzzword and curiosity as IoT is now. When Mr Ashton had to make a presentation to convince senior management of consumer giant Procter & Gamble of the benefits of putting a microchip in everything the company made to monitor its supply chain, his logic was simple.

"They had no idea what I was going to tell them, but they knew the Internet was a big deal," Mr Ashton said in an interview with website TechRepublic last year. "If I could get 'Internet' into the presentation title, I could get their attention. So I very hastily called the presentation the Internet of Things."

Today, when most of the world takes the Internet and what it does for granted, people are still trying to wrap their heads around the term IoT.

In practice, IoT has been a recipe for confusion, hampering companies and governments trying to figure out how it can be applied to their specific real-world situations.

"I don't like the phrase Internet of Things because it sounds like you're selling everything, and when our business users say they want to implement IoT, their finance people ask them, 'What are you talking about?'" said KPMG Singapore partner Juvanus Tjandra, who heads the firm's telecommunications, media and technology practice.

A 2017 Cisco survey found that three-quarters of IoT pilots failed owing to, among other reasons, a lack of internal expertise in how IoT can be applied.

Mr Tjandra, speaking at the IoT Asia conference at the Singapore Expo last month, added that IoT solution providers are not doing a good job of explaining the utility of IoT to customers, further compounding the situation.

MAKING IOT WORK

There have been some success stories despite the absence of clear road maps for implementation, but the successful companies took on the burden of figuring out for themselves how IoT fits into existing business models.

Local coffee chain Crown Coffee launched the first robot barista in Singapore in 2017, which is said to be able to brew 200 cups of coffee an hour, or five times faster than a veteran human counterpart.

The robot employs facial recognition to recognise repeat customers and tracks their consumption patterns to provide more precise service.

"We really struggled at first trying to work out how to monetise a $100,000 system. That's a lot of money for coffee," said Crown Coffee founder and chief executive officer Keith Tan.

"We had the data, like what time the customer comes in and what he is likely to order, but so what? We realised we had to build the back-end system ourselves to make sense of the data because we are at the beginning (of IoT adoption) and there's no existing system. That was really not easy."

DON'T JUST JUMP ON THE BANDWAGON

Digitalisation and IoT are buzzwords now but not everyone has to get into it. You have to carefully evaluate your business model to see whether it's suitable.

MR NEO ENG CHONG, president and chief executive officer of precision engineering firm Makino Asia, on how firms should approach the IoT trend.

Mr Neo Eng Chong, president and chief executive officer of precision engineering firm Makino Asia, warned against adopting IoT based on the hype surrounding it alone. The firm launched a $100 million smart facility earlier this month with an IoT centre, which tracks all its machines in operation for customers around Asia and can predict which units need maintenance before a breakdown occurs.

"Digitalisation and IoT are buzzwords now but not everyone has to get into it. You have to carefully evaluate your business model to see whether it's suitable," he said.

TO TRACK OR NOT TO TRACK

Rushing to implement IoT can also throw up concerns over data privacy, especially if laws and regulations have yet to catch up.

Citizens will be hard-pressed to keep track themselves of the consequences of data sharing for every connected device they own.

This is where governments have a key role to play as stewards of the emerging IoT space.

 

"We have international standardisation across frameworks for many things. You might not know anything about architecture, but you don't expect when you walk into any building today for the floor to buckle under your feet," said Ms Saadia Muzaffar, tech entrepreneur and founder of TechGirls Canada, an organisation that champions the need for women in tech.

"So you always need a layer of public stewardship to provide that trust, someone whose job is to understand and figure it out."

The National University of Singapore's law faculty dean Simon Chesterman likened the opacity of IoT to a licence agreement consumers get when buying a new phone. "Who reads all the terms and conditions (of the agreement) when buying an iPhone or a Samsung phone? I don't and I teach data protection," he said.

"It's unrealistic to think people will read and I do agree there needs to be an accountability-based data protection legal framework (for companies holding personal data)."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2019, with the headline 'Clearing the cloud of confusion over the Internet of Things'. Print Edition | Subscribe