By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Throughout the four-story Calit2 Building – and the institute’s history on the UC Irvine campus, for that matter – runs a recurring and very active mandate: develop and integrate communication technology into devices and applications for improving the way we live, work, play, and care for ourselves and others.
A stroll through the building provides insight. On the first floor, researchers design and manufacture sensors and electronics in state-of-the-art cleanrooms, while one floor up, students drop in to the MDP (Multidisciplinary Design Program) Lab to prototype integrated systems for applications, and the EVOKe Center to build ethical values into technology applications.
Ascend to the third floor’s eHealth Collaboratory. Here are toys and musical devices instrumented with embedded sensors that help children with autism interact with each other and with their parents. Computer-assisted and Internet-connected devices are devised to aid in post-stroke and exercise rehabilitation, monitoring of premature infants, and balance issues in the elderly. Down the hall is the Center for Networks and Relational Analysis, where researchers examine networks from a variety of differing viewpoints and domains.
And on the building’s fourth floor, in the CalPlug Center, scientists are making television set-top boxes smart enough to learn user habits so they can power down more efficiently and conserve energy. Next door is the Center for Digital Transformation, where researchers explore the use of “big data.”
It turns out, to the surprise of no one affiliated with the institute, that all along, Calit2 has been on the forefront of what is now becoming a revolution of sorts. Called the “Internet of Things,” it’s a powerful force, sweeping up nearly all remnants of a soon-to-be archaic analog past and altering our daily lives in a way comparable to that of the Internet itself.
IoT, as it is familiarly known, is a network of connected devices, systems and even venues equipped with embedded sensors and controllers that communicate wirelessly via the Internet or intranet systems.
Whether it’s an environmental monitor that conveys information about pollution levels or soil moisture, a refrigerator that notifies its owner that groceries are approaching their “use-by” date, or shoes that log the number of steps their wearers traverse, soon, almost everything with which we interact is going to have IP communication capabilities.
We will wear it, drive it, fly in it, be empowered by it, and live in this IoT world, but we will no longer be responsible for inputting most of the information that informs it.
Today’s World Wide Web, 25 years after its creation, is still almost completely dependent on humans typing, swiping and uploading information. Embedded sensors in the vast majority of Internet-of-Things devices, however, will collect and input data autonomously, generating countless exobytes (an exobyte is a quintillion bytes) of data. Estimates suggest that we already create 2.5 exobytes of data per day, and that number can be expected to rise exponentially as the Internet of Things evolves.
“Computing and communication has really reached into our daily lives,” says Calit2 Irvine Director G.P. Li. “The Internet of Things is going to take us to the next level. It will enable us to get things done without having to access a computer.”
Experts agree the Internet of Things is imminent. "This is a revolution but it is not a revolution that happened overnight. It's actually an evolution. But now is the time," says Calit2 IoT guru Mark Bachman.
The moniker “Internet of Things” is not new; it was coined in 1999. But the recent exuberance with which it is being embraced by industries and governments worldwide is driven by the confluence of three major factors: the availability of low-cost, highly sophisticated sensors and electronics; the maturity of a global communication infrastructure; and the emergence of a digitally savvy population. “This is a revolution but it is not a revolution that happened overnight,” says Calit2 academic affiliate and eHealth Collaboratory Director Mark Bachman. “It is actually an evolution. But now is the time.”
Before that can happen, though, current Internet protocol, whose 32-bits of information allow room for only 4.3 billion Internet addresses, must give way fully to a new version. IPv6, with its 128 bits of information per address, can provide 3.4x10 to the 38th power more Internet addresses. That’s enough to give an IP address to every atom in the universe and still have plenty left over.
“We thought 4.3 billion Internet addresses would be enough. But we ran out in 2011,” Internet creator Vint Cerf said earlier this year in a Google Internet Hangout chat.
Cerf, vice-president and chief Internet evangelist at Google, and a member of Calit2’s Advisory Board, is optimistic about the potential of Internet of Things, but warns that we must stay vigilant. “While this opens up wonderful and interesting opportunities … the one thing we should be very worried about is that the software that manages this stuff may be penetrated or compromised in some way,” he said in the online interview. “We’re going to have to build much more paranoid operating systems that will resist various kinds of attack.”
Gene Tsudik is a UCI Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science, and managing director of the university’s Secure Computing and Networking Center. He agrees that, although IoT presents privacy and security concerns, this is really nothing new. “Any time a new kind of a device acquires connectivity, security and privacy issues must be carefully considered,” he explains. “However, controlling things via the Internet is not new, and what we’re seeing here is not radically different.”
Regardless, there are no sure-fire solutions. “You can’t guard against all types of attacks,” he says, but suggests that device manufacturers will have to work closely with software security experts to prevent hacks. “One thing you don’t want to do is put the intelligence of a laptop into specialized – especially, embedded – end-devices.”
And what about privacy – which Tsudik describes as security’s “fraternal twin: they kind of look alike but sometimes they oppose each other,” – will it be compromised in this new paradigm of connectedness? Tsudik shrugs. “It never existed. We haven’t had privacy since the birth of the World Wide Web,” he says.
Although IoT may continue the trend of gradual erosion of perceived privacy as well as present more security challenges, Tsudik and his colleagues try to foresee possible malfeasance. “It’s a never-ending cat-and-mouse game,” he concedes. “Ideally, we’d like stay a little bit ahead of the game by trying to anticipate the next attack or challenge.”
Ready or not, though, experts across the board agree that IoT is imminent.
“You’re already seeing lots of examples of it,” says Vijay Gurbaxani, UCI professor of information systems and director of the Center for Digital Transformation. He cites Waze, an app recently acquired by Google Maps, which uses aggregate data from drivers’ cell phone GPS systems to “know” when roads are clogged or closed, and suggest alternatives.
Disney has introduced digital bracelets, which enable park access, ride priority, hotel entrance and electronic shopping. Sensor-equipped airplanes and cars send alerts when maintenance is required. Self-driving automobiles communicate information to other cars about traffic conditions. The list goes on.
By 2023, every person on the planet could be surrounded by 3,000-5,000 connected everyday items that impact their lives. “The efficiency of the U.S. economy is going to go up dramatically in terms of the ability to use assets,” Gurbaxani says of IoT. “But I think we need to be alert. We have to be far more proactive with an eye toward the common good .”
As the tide of technology swells once again, breaking into a powerful wave, both Li and Bachman marvel at Calit2’s well-honed and rock-solid foundation, and its fortuitous placement as a center equipped to assist those on campus and in the community looking to participate in the momentum.
“Calit2 is the number one source of IoT on campus; it’s what we do,” Li says. “For years, we’ve developed technology that enables IoT, and we’ve studied telecommunications and the networks that support it. And we have put a lot of energy into understanding how people interact with technology.”
Adds Bachman: “The great strength of Calit2 is that we’re an independent broker on campus. We have experience building teams from disparate disciplines, producing applications that impact daily life, and commercializing new technologies. But we must also leverage our academic strengths to study and understand this movement, to inform policy and provide guidance to industry.
“When we talk about the Internet of Things, we’re not talking just about this sensor or that security protocol or the newest application,” he emphasizes. “Our strength is in providing end-to-end integration throughout the value chain. We have a lot of experience doing this; Calit2 is the center for IoT.”