February 25, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Yick Hong Leung provides an intriguing glimpse into the data-heavy world of our pervasively connected future.

CCTV camera in hallwayIn Inside the Body of a Resilient City, Julia Havens describes the city as “a network of interdependent systems, not unlike the human body; each one depends on the next to function properly”. In order to advance our cities into ‘smart cities’ – a concept of cities connected and enhanced by digital technology – we need rapid communication and data transfer between their respective systems.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is an emerging global infrastructure for information transfer. It is created by embedding physical devices such as phones, fridges and radiators with a variety of sensors and network connections so they may freely communicate with each other. These devices could learn from our living patterns and anticipate our needs – even before we do – allowing greater efficiency and comfort in our lives. The Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group estimates that by 2020, the IoT will consist of almost 50 billion objects.

This technology could deliver practical benefit to our everyday lives in areas that vary from healthcare to transportation. Today in San Carlos, California, embedded networked sensors in parking spaces inform drivers where the nearest available parking space is, helping reduce congestion, pollution and fuel consumption.

Imagine stepping out of your smart-door in the morning without your smart-keys. Your smart-door detects your mistake, buzzes to notify you, and delays locking the door to give you a chance to dash back and grab them. Imagine you have a history of heart disease. Your GP suggests injecting a small heart monitor into your arm. At the slightest sign of arrhythmia, it sends a warning to your phone: proceed to a hospital immediately. Imagine your new neighbours are throwing a house party and playing obnoxiously loud music all night. Your in-built sleep monitor sends a message to your alarm to give you an extra hour of sleep.  

IoT devices can provide major benefits and improve our day-to-day efficiency, but to ensure fluid data transfer between different devices, our IoT devices will require constant internet access. This could be provided by mobile networks, mesh networks, or citywide Wi-Fi networks. The development of citywide Wi-Fi networks could transform entire cities into a Wireless Access Zones, making access to the internet ubiquitous. This could be achieved through a wireless mesh grid network, with broadband services provided by local government, implemented by placing thousands of wireless routers mounted on poles outdoors. With ubiquitous internet access, IoT devices could function to their maximum potential, with the ability to seamlessly upload and download information wherever you are.

The advent of IoT will result in an enormous amount of data being continuously generated and sent by our devices – data that has been labelled as valuable as gold by the World Economic Forum. How will we collect, analyse and use this data? Advances in artificial intelligence, such as cognitive computing technologies, have already proved useful in bookkeeping our mountains of data to generate useful statistics, and could be used in the IoT to search our data for insights into human behaviours.

But with our personal data flying around our cities, a problem will arise: how can we secure our private information? Much of the advancement of the IoT has been hampered by these security concerns, with the impending ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ doing little to quell such fears. In order to move towards ‘smart cities’, a watertight framework regarding the secure transfer of data is needed. Until this framework is built, we will have to wait patiently for our hyper-connected future.

Yick Hong Leung (Eric) is studying for an MEng in Civil Engineering

Image by Gianmaria Zanotti