How the IoT Has Ushered in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The Internet of Things is critical in enabling technology for manufacturing and beyond.
Published: October 9, 2019

Back in grade school, we all learned about the Industrial Revolution—the sweeping mechanization of Europe and the United States that, seemingly overnight, replaced handmade production with water- and steam-powered manufacturing. But, of course, that wasn’t the only radical reinvention of industry. We’ve had three major industrial revolutions since the 1760s. The early 20th century’s Second Industrial Revolution brought us mass production and assembly lines, and we’ve all lived through the Third’s explosion of computers and automation. And here we are now, about to enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution: the convergence of advances in technologies across many different areas—artificial intelligence (AI), biotech, big data, analytics, predictive analytics and more.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is critical in enabling technology in this new revolution for manufacturing and beyond. Machine learning and AI stand out as the big accelerators that’ll catapult us forward—those technologies have the capacity to self-learn, and therefore discover solutions faster than humans would be capable of doing on their own. That’s a big opportunity, and I’m excited about this because it represents a chance to tackle big problems standing out in a variety of disciplines. Whether it’s in manufacturing, medicine or engineering, we’ll need machine intelligence.

IoT Feeds AI That’s Powering the Revolution
At the same time, AI can’t learn without data—lots of data. That’s where the IoT comes in; capturing lots of data over long periods of time is really what the IoT is about. It’s about taking data from all manner of devices, sensors and sub-control systems, then quickly processing the information and reacting to it in real time.

It’s akin to how the Internet has evolved. Throughout the last two decades, sites have become better and better at collecting data about users. Eventually, those websites started to learn how to capitalize on that data, and today you end up with things like Amazon’s and Netflix’s recommendation engines, which have revolutionized online shopping experiences. Today, the IoT is taking those same concepts and reaching into the physical world to communicate to devices, and to communicate to sub-control systems inside of physical spaces. We’re making that big engine much, much more intelligent.

And so that data capture, processing and persistence are what the IoT is all about. Lay on top of all that technologies like AI, and it becomes the food for an AI engine to make powerful decisions; it enables systems to self-learn. So equipped, we’ll see the velocity of innovation accelerate dramatically.

If you peel away the complexity, you’ll find that the IoT is just about connecting a central management platform to a large network of physical subsystems. The Internet of Things is all about processing data from the subsystems in real time, storing the data in a central warehouse and feeding it into business applications that make the data useful.

This architecture drives operational efficiencies thanks to better visibility into data health, which lets you create automation to solve manufacturing problems—turning what once would have been a critical anomaly into a mundane event. If a machine goes offline, your IoT platform can dispatch a technician to go service that machine. But that’s just scratching the surface; you can extend that automation to all kinds of creative ideas that are only possible once you’re connected through IoT.

What to Watch For
This much is true: the IoT is already here. After all, my company has been working on the IoT now for almost six years, and its history is actually a lot richer than that—the IoT just didn’t have the benefit of an official definition or marketing term until recently.

Consider the venerable ATM. Those automated tellers are actually an effective IoT implementation, despite having been around far longer than we like to give the IoT credit for. Similarly, I’ve just watched very large organizations create IoT-specific disciplines within their business. We’ve seen job titles incorporate “IoT,” while IoT platforms not unlike our own have come to life.

So what’s next?

Now that industries are maturing in their pace and adoption of the IoT, expect to see more governance. Like the enhanced regulatory requirements around security for e-commerce, the IoT will become a more regulated technology, with a fair amount of evolving standards we’ll all need to adhere to in order to make sure that the IoT environment is (and remains) secure.

Likewise, I expect that the concept of the IoT as an independent discipline might start to fade; it’s almost certainly going to become much more integrated into other technologies. The IoT will be inside of things you use every day without you even knowing that the term “IoT” exists. The idea of big IoT platforms like Canopy is very important right now, but in the future, Canopy may well become a component of systems that are taking advantage of it.

Think of it this way: Back in the DVD kiosk rental world—where I came from—kiosks were very much powered by the IoT, but it just wasn’t branded an IoT solution. Likewise, the Nest thermostat is considered a thermostat, not an IoT platform—while it very much is a part of the IoT. We’ll see more and more of the IoT fading into the background, where we will take its presence for granted in manufacturing and elsewhere. It’ll be “IoT in disguise,” because consumers, industry and enterprises won’t look for it; it’s going to become an expectation.

While it’s almost a cliché to assert that the pace of technological innovation is accelerating, that doesn’t make it untrue. The pace is going exponential, like a graph with a hockey stick curve. That, in part, is because the IoT continues to deliver the food that feeds techs’ insatiable appetite for data.

The dark side of all this innovation is the concern that increasing automation and smart machines may displace human workers—and that’s a real worry. We’ve proven time and time again that when machines can perform tasks more efficiently and more accurately than people, humans tend to be replaced. That means we’ll soon be facing some very real socio-economic challenges. Smart people like Bill Gates have made some predictions about how this will affect us, and it would be irresponsible not to take them seriously. That includes planning ahead to recalibrate the workforce.

We need to look at ways to retrain the workforce. In fact, one thing that we’ve thought about at my firm is that if Canopy ends up being a contributing factor to displacing workforce, then we, to be responsible, must become a place where that workforce can come to be retrained into careers related to maintaining and servicing the IoT.

Security Must Remain a Focus
Finally, it’s worth pointing out some good news: Security in the IoT is not an afterthought; it is becoming table stakes. For sure, security has to be there, because we’re talking about connected systems—using the Internet for management and control. Any time you do that, security is essential.

Early in the evolution of the IoT, it was almost the first thing anybody wanted to talk about. “How are we going to secure it? What if a hacker gets in and takes over control of a car?” And we’ve seen security vulnerabilities play out in the real world. Someone hacked into a casino through a smart thermostat inside a fish tank, for example. But what is currently starting to happen is that security is becoming more and more baked in; it will become less of a headline because we’ve proven we can make it work. For example, we talk about security in digital payments a lot less today than we did when PayPal was in its infancy.

The result is that in business-development discussions, people are talking less about security in the IoT, which can be a little scary. I think the reason it’s happening is that people assume it’s being taken care of since the technology is maturing—but I don’t know that we should always assume that to be true. That said, I’m excited about the fact that it’s becoming less of a headline. It’s becoming more mature and we’re not letting fears about security get in the way of adoption. That’s a trend we should expect to continue to see.

Let’s move forward, and let’s go solve some cool problems in manufacturing through the adoption of the IoT.

Steve Latham is the founder and CEO of Banyan Hills Technologies.