The internet of things and the fourth industrial revolution

“The business and academic community has set out a vision for much greater ambition needed for Britain to be a world leader in the fourth industrial revolution”.

Jürgen Maier

Thanks to the digitisation of nearly everything there are now vast quantities of data gathered by devices connected to the internet. I often notice them during my daily commute.

Prior to cycling through Newcastle I tap into local environmental sensors to see the latest info on air quality or weather data. On the road next to me I notice someone with a Fitbit or mobile phone strapped to their arm recording their heart rate, number of steps taken and how many calories they’ve burned.

If I catch the Metro or bus to work I will likely run into someone with a gadget I’ve never seen before, a new type of mobile phone, notebook, tablet or other digital device that’s streaming Netflix, or some other cloud based entertainment network. And if I get a lift from a friend I often spot a Tesla electric car or Nissan Leaf, both of which hook up to the national grid for charging, but could also potentially store energy for the grid as well.  

On occasion if I go to the park people gather together in swarms, staring into the smooth, dark glass surface of their phone playing the augmented reality game Pokemon Go (yes, people still do this). At the cinema people pay for their tickets through digital wireless transactions by waving a plastic card with a chip in it across an electronic device, at the supermarket they do the same using self-service check out machines.

I realise that in some ways what I along with billions of others are witnessing is perhaps the start of what has become known as ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’, a cyber-physical age that fuses together technologies which blur the lines between digital and biological – human and machine.

Machines put order into our lives, and we increasingly interact with them as time goes on. The future of industry, education, communication and governance will depend on how we interact and collect data from machines. But what or who orders the machines? How do you get them to ‘talk to each other’ and speak the same language? How do you extract data from them that is of value?

At the moment there are no easy answers to these questions, but everything mentioned so far could be summed up as the ‘internet-of-things’. If you try to define this rather slippery term at face value it will likely prove difficult when communicating to the uninitiated. Like its predecessors ‘virtual reality’ or ‘cyberspace’, the internet-of-things has no strict definition, maybe because it’s rather all-encompassing like the internet itself.

Even people who work for companies that are building it or academics researching it will not be able to define it fully. But the internet-of-things appears ambiguous for a reason: it attempts to describe the ongoing process of the seamless integration of society with smart devices and digital technology. It’s where cyberspace meets the ‘real world’, kind of.

How about another term which is closely related to the internet-of-things? It’s called ‘cyber-physical’. Dr Ken Pierce and Prof John Fitzgerald give a brief introduction in this video.

Through AI there are even more complexities thrown into the mix. People talk to their phones and computers, why not talk to your car, bicycle or bath? Not quite to the point of Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her, as probably falling in love with the OS that controls your toaster is pushing it a bit.

In a situation described in The Simulacra by Philip K Dick where fly sized adverts follow you wherever you go really that far from reality? Or is this something so unbelievable that the only way to describe it is through fiction? Retailers are doing something similar for shoppers with mobile phones by sending them location-based adverts, which is perhaps sneakier than a fly, and potentially just as annoying.

The manufacturing industry in particular will likely continue to undergo a radical change in how products are produced, in some cases it has thanks to advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, logistics, wireless technologies and other areas. The next step could be highly sophisticated modelling or digital twin technology — when the model becomes an exact although digital copy of the thing it is modelling. In many cases people already have virtual identities i.e social media, and in the internet-of-things objects are having something similar. They get a second life.

For business the internet-of-things potentially provides an endless array of opportunities giving them leverage in a highly competitive marketplace. Having a real-time simulation of manufacturing makes possible not only getting products right the first time around, but monitoring and improving their performance, and understanding the data from them. Enter Siemens’ MindSphere.

MindSphere is an innovative operating system for the internet-of-things. Siemens are interested in working with a variety of companies to help them utilise the value of their data. Industries often have numerous data points, many of which are collecting data but are not used. Through MindSphere it’s possible to help companies make the most of the internet-of-things and have more control over their data.

For our next podcast we spoke with some of the key people working in the MindSphere Lab in the Urban Sciences Building at Newcastle Helix, and researchers in cyber-physical systems, to find out how it works and explore ways multiple sectors could get involved.

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*Note at the end of podcast experts give some tips for listeners interested in careers in computing and engineering.

One thought on “The internet of things and the fourth industrial revolution

  1. There are some other fantastic examples of IoT and Cyber Physical in popular culture:

    The First – running on Channel 4 at the minute – is set in the near future but shows some fantastic-but-plausible wearable tech and IoT systems.

    Ex Machina – the 2014 cyber-psychological thriller – is a fantastic film.

    A little dark but … the Black Mirror episodes ‘The Entire History of You’ and ‘Be right back’ are pretty thought provoking too!

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