Computer Science Professor Cristian Borcea Offers Insight into the Internet of Things

Cristian Borcea, associate professor and chair of NJIT's computer science department.

There’s a bridge in Minnesota outfitted with high-tech sensors that monitor weight, vibration and temperature to collect data to prevent a collapse.

In San Francisco, you can use an app that’s tethered to magnetic sensors, which allows drivers to see—at a glance, in real time—where parking spaces are available.

The streets of Songdo, South Korea are lined with streetlamps that adjust their brightness according to the number of people in the area.

Although these technologies are novel in theory and practice, they exist and operate independently on individual frameworks.

But let’s say a large pipe bursts underground at a major intersection in a busy city. And before the rupture snarls traffic, the sensor attached to the pipe detects the change in water pressure and after wirelessly reporting the issue to the police, sends a message to nearby traffic signals to close part of the road and delivers alternative detour information straight to your smart phone and car’s GPS system.

This is the Internet of Things (IoT): the endless intermingling and connection of multiple devices, from coffee makers and refrigerators to wearable technology, cars and smart meters—think: anything with an on and off switch—that collect and transmit data via the Internet.

“This is where we want to be, but most of these applications don’t share data with each other,” says Cristian Borcea, associate professor and chair of NJIT’s computer science department. “They don’t cooperate. The goal of IoT is to make all of these sensors and mobile devices collaborate with each other to create a global communication infrastructure.”

IoT By The Numbers (2020 projections)

• 4.5 million developers devoted to IoT
• 26 billion devices connected
• $3.04 trillion revenue projection

The Possibilities and Roadblocks Ahead

Through computation, sensing and wireless communication, the benefits of having a plethora of objects work in unison are immeasurable.

On a city level: IoT could be a big help in improving building management, more efficient traffic flow, water or waste management and policing.

On a state level: IoT could be used in road infrastructure highway traffic management, healthcare education and agriculture.

On a consumer level: IoT would achieve goals by improving the decision-making capacity via augmented intelligence.

On a business level: IoT would help achieve enhanced process optimization and efficiencies by collecting data and reporting on the data collected.

But to help make this idea of boundless data connectivity a reality, there needs to be interoperability between devices because right now, says Borcea, “many companies continue to come up with their own procedures. Essentially, you need a protocol for global sensing with the intelligence to control physical devices. The communication protocols are almost there, we just have to make sure we have a standard for IoT.”

There’s also a need for sharing, privacy and security protocols—and this is where things get a bit tricky.

Imagine if NJIT placed sensors on its campus. Should the university allow the city of Newark to access them? Should the data be shared with someone driving to campus? Sometimes it might be useful, other times not so much.

“This kind of intelligent communication is very different from the traditional way in which computers talk to each other,” explains Borcea. “In IoT, the devices will decide for themselves; the human will not program them. Once devices are deployed, we won’t directly control each individual device. I might control sets of devices to run a certain application, but I won’t have the same level of control I have on a PC.”

It’s this sort of autonomy that presents conceivable security risks.

There was one notable case, in which computer researchers at the University of Michigan hacked into smart traffic lights and quickly seized control of an entire system of nearly 100 intersections in an unnamed town in Michigan, using nothing more than a laptop and basic radio broadcast equipment.

Still, if enough data isn’t shared, everything remains localized and no one will benefit from the full potential of the global scale, which kind of defeats the purpose.

“Would I want my healthcare bracelet to share my location with everybody?” asks Borcea. “Probably not. I’d prefer to keep my location private. But in certain situations—like if I’m having a heart attack—I definitely want to share my location to find a doctor nearby to save me. I want to share data from where I am with Waze,” he continues, “because it’s a community-oriented application. If nobody shares data, I can’t benefit from it.”

IoT By The Numbers (recent case study)

• 60 percent of devices failed to use encryption when downloading software
• 70 percent of IoT devices were vulnerable to hacking
• 80 percent of IoT devices failed passwords requirements

Batteries Not Included

As the academic and industry communities take on the herculean task of solving the probable security problems that continue to hinder the progression of IoT, there’s still another huge hurdle to jump: a lack of battery power.

“In some sense, the main limitation of all these wireless devices—mobile or non mobile—is the battery,” insists Borcea. “Computing power and storage increases exponentially every year, while battery increase remains linear.”

He says if you tried to apply the existing protocols, your smart device would die in one hour because “many security protocols consume a lot of energy. There’s a big difference between computing, the wireless capacity and the battery capacity. We need a major breakthrough in battery power.”

IoT By The Numbers (as it stands now)

• 1.5 percent: amount Dubai Aluminum improved the fuel efficiency of its gas turbines by operating sensor-collected operating data
• $9 million: amount FedEx expects to save annually using sensors on its trucks
• $1 billion: amount invested by German and U.S. governments to accelerate commercial success 

Wave of the Future

With a sound framework, secure sharing and energy-efficient batteries and protocols in place, there may very well be billions of physical devices communicating and sharing information.

This means you’d be able to wake up in the morning to the sound of your alarm clock, which will wirelessly alert your coffee maker to start brewing coffee. And when you head to the kitchen to grab the last bit of cream for your coffee, your Internet refrigerator will automatically order more from the supermarket using money from your bank account and have it delivered to your door step and waiting for you by the time you get home from work.

Sure, it sounds far-flung, and the work to get to this level of enhanced functionality and computational intelligence is challenging to say the least, but Borcea assures it’s only a matter of time before network connectivity permeates our lives.

“There are some innovative devices in the works that will have wireless communication, lots of processing power and will surely become part of IoT in some way,” he says. “Remember, we’re human. If something is possible, we’ll make it happen.”

By Shydale James

This story is tagged: college of computing sciences, ccs, cristian borcea . Or read more Feature Stories.