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The role of IoT in mobility, smart cities and urban technology

Opportunities for IoT innovation in mobility, smart cities and urban technology abound. There are a multitude of things to be discovered, systems to be developed and problems to be solved. IoT will shift the paradigm of how we work, when we work and ultimately how we interact with the physical world, blending the lines between virtual and physical. However, this brave new world doesn’t come without its share of challenges.

I recently sat down with Chuck Byers, principal engineer and system architect at Cisco, who has served as the lead architect on over 20 IoT products to get his take on where urban technology is headed — the challenges, the opportunities and his future vision.

What are the biggest challenges for IoT mobility, smart cities and urban technology?
The worst challenges out there are security and privacy. Security is a particularly nasty problem because the internet of things and actuators to the networks control capabilities. Up until very recently, we just had sensors. We just had data flowing into the internet without any vast opportunities for it to instantaneously affect the outside world. Indeed, we have data breaches (several very well-publicized multimillion-dollar losses because of those data breaches), but there was no physical harm; no humans got injured as a result of that.

Now we have things such as autonomous vehicles and chemical plants in the field that have actuators that can change the parameters of the physical world. As soon as those become part of the network and the control of humans is one level indirect from that network, then we start seeing stakes get much higher for security. Hackers have much more opportunity for mayhem if they can disrupt a pipeline or cause an autonomous vehicle traffic jam on the interstate. We need to ensure that the security of IoT systems is up to the job — trustworthy and appropriate for mission-critical, safety-critical and even life-critical applications.

A second challenge is the control of these networks. By control, I mean the installation, configuration and ongoing monitoring of all the IoT endpoints. Depending upon whose study you read, there may be 50 billion IoT endpoints in the world, even as early as next year. Moreover, think about what happens if someone has to select that security camera, type this IP address, click a bunch of boxes to configure its parameters and then push the download and start the camera button. Even if it only takes a minute to access each of these endpoints, that’s 50 billion minutes in person-hours required. Automation is necessary to make that system cost-effective and sustainable. There have to be universal, trustworthy plug-and-play interfaces that would make all of these things function interdependently. The ideal scenario: the technician bolts these devices to the wall and flips the power switch on while all the network connections, all the configurations, all the operational parameters and calibration operate without human intervention, at least 99.9% of the time.

What are the next frontiers of the IoT revolution and urban mobility/future cities innovation?
Four different technologies are particularly promising and vital for the future of these markets:

1. Wireless mobility especially 5G, advanced Wi-Fi and even various kinds of free-space optical communications. We have to continuously figure out how to connect things at ridiculously high bandwidths with ridiculously high densities, and that’s an essential enabling technology for all of these verticals.

2. Various forms of artificial intelligence, machine intelligence, deep learning and analytics algorithms. The technology has gotten to the point where the complexity of these networks is so high and the rate of change is so fast that humans can’t keep up. We need artificial intelligence and all its variants to support that. There are many growth areas associated with automation, automatic configurations and the analytics of these huge fire hoses of data that are coming off these huge arrays of IoT sensors.

3. Security and privacy. The GDPR, recently enacted in Europe, is going to be influencing the rest of the world. I would expect that there will be more teeth in national privacy legislation forthcoming. There will be a lot of interesting network problems associated with maintaining security and privacy, especially isolating designated recipients of a specific sensor stream from those who not authorized to receive that stream.

4. Distribution of intelligence up and down the network. Many IoT deployment models have these relatively dumb, relatively simple sensors and actuators out on the edge points. They also have a dumb network that hooks them to the cloud. Their model is dependent on the lion’s share of the work getting done in the cloud. It turns out that that’s probably a flawed model, because of concerns with latency, reliability, network bandwidth and a multitude of other reasons. Ideally, we should distribute the computation, networking and storage that are working those sensors and actuators on a hierarchy between the cloud and the devices. That’s variously called fog computing, edge computing, cloudlets or some call it mist computing. Regardless of the name, the point is that we’re going to be distributing the computational resources a lot deeper in the network than one would find today with a few dozen major web cloud data centers. It’s going to be the equivalent of a small cloud data center in every building, on every street corner and rolling in every autonomous vehicle. Consequently, there are substantial challenges associated with designing those networks, distributing their workloads and operating them reliably and profitably.

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