Thanks to high-speed service providers, ubiquitous WiFi and rainbows of sensors, our world is awash in Internet-connected technologies. This always-on Internet is sometimes a convenience and often a hassle, but it's always a gateway to myriad opportunities. Those opportunities increase exponentially as the Internet of Things continues to evolve.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is an all-encompassing term that refers to scenarios in which an array of technologies ushers non-digitized objects (coffee machines, ovens, lamps, cars) and creatures (livestock and pets, for example) into the realm of the Internet. Each object becomes uniquely identifiable and can interact with as many other network-connected devices as you want.
The possibilities of the IoT are nearly limitless. Thanks in large part to that potential, the IoT has created new sectors in the world economy and lot of new jobs, too. Before we launch into the new careers that the IoT enables, we'll share a few examples of just how powerful this concept can be when it's fully realized:
- If you're genetically predisposed to heart disease, your physician recommends an always-on, implanted heart monitor. Sensors in the monitor ceaselessly report data to your smartphone, and in the event that your ticker misfires in any way, your phone alerts you and sends a message to your doctor.
- Grocery shopping is much easier with a smartphone and a smart fridge. The fridge knows that your kids drank the last of the orange juice and that all of produce is gone or half rotten, so it passes along that information to your phone. You whiz around gathering goods on an automatically generated list. Your shopping cart is smart, too, so you don't even have to wait in a checkout line. Just pass through a smart gate and you're automatically billed for the products you selected.
- Your office printer automatically orders more paper when the supply closet gets low. Your alarm clock signals your coffee maker to begin brewing, turns up the heat in your house, and, on cold days, fires the engine of your car so that it's warm and defrosted for your commute. And the smart lock on your front door alerts you when you leave your keys behind so you're not locked out in sub-zero temperatures.
As these endless combinations of products and sensors appear in our personal and professional lives, older jobs will be transformed into high-tech gigs, and altogether new careers will appear, too.
Agricultural technologists work to feed the planet by maximizing the food we get from our plants and animals. These technologists may specialize in soil analysis, livestock care or crop yields. To best do their jobs, these workers need data, and lots of it.
With a variety of technologies, farms can track all of their vehicle locations and fuel levels and also see how much fertilizer or herbicide has been applied to specific parts of certain fields. During harvests, farms can get real-time updates on yields as combines bring in crops. Areas with lower yields may be marked for additional fertilizer the next planting season.
Soil moisture sensors are already in widespread use, and nutrient sensors will indicate whether plants have enough sustenance to thrive. Newer sensors that detect for pH, ground elevation, organic matter content and other variables will also greatly impact end yields.
Technologists also need to keep digital eyes on livestock. Sensors implanted into herds of cattle track the health of each animal. If a cow falls ill, managers immediately know they should contact a vet to keep the animal from getting worse and to prevent it from spreading a disease to others. Other sensors may track milk production and even the nutrient levels of milk from each cow.
Combine all of this data and more, and agriculture professionals have a clearer picture of how to improve efficiency on each property. With the help of technologists, each farmer can maximize profitability and stay in business for the long run.
3-D printing technology (also called additive manufacturing) has been around for many years, but recent advances are making it a better option for a wider range of companies. In short, 3-D printers take objects modeled on computers and print them (often in plastic) layer by layer, until the object is complete.
These printers can make bobblehead toys, prosthetic body parts or even firearms. Notably, they can also be used to print circuitry. Build the electronics circuits directly into a 3-D printed product and you can design it to work with the IoT any way you like.
If a company prints a custom-made heart just for you, it could also build in a range of sensors to keep tabs on your new body part. Those sensors would track all aspects of your heart's functionality to make sure it's working properly and to keep you alive. All of that data could zip from the heart to your phone to your doctor's computer, and each day she could skim your updates and note any abnormalities.
To make these kinds of advanced products, a 3-D printing engineer must understand how the printer interfaces with its software. He also needs a firm grasp on how well (or how poorly) various combinations of plastics work in the printer, particularly when throwing in the added complexity of integrated electronic circuity.
The best printing workers have experience in industrial and mechanical engineering. Those with advanced backgrounds are positioned to ride the surge in this booming technology.
The United States power grid is a tangled web of aging equipment, much of which dates back to the early 1900s. In many areas, it's inefficient, unreliable and expensive to operate. A smarter, more modern grid is coming, one that requires the skills of grid modernization engineers.
A smarter grid will affect power use starting right in your own home. If all of your appliances and electronics report their power use to each other, they'd optimize their electricity consumption and maximize efficiency.
Now imagine that kind of communication happening on a citywide or statewide scale. Street lamps, traffic lights, industrial machinery of all kinds, all networked with one another and providing massive amounts of data to streamline energy consumption.
To make that happen, all of these power gobblers must run on a similar platform or operating system. They also have to be secure, lest a band of nefarious criminals turns off all the lights in a major city.
Smart grid engineers must also contend with the challenges introduced by solar and wind power. These systems generate power only when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, so their unpredictability can lead to grid instabilities.
None of this smart grid modernization will be cheap. It could take nearly half a trillion dollars to upgrade our current grid [source: U.S. Department of Energy]. But with some hard work and clever design, there will be less downtime and greater efficiency thanks to the engineers who bring our elderly grid into the age of the Internet.
Smaller sensors and batteries, flexible circuitry and sweat-resistant electronics are becoming more common. Savvy companies are combining these elements into wearable technology so we can adorn ourselves with all manner of geeky goods. This isn't some wild, off-the-cuff idea. More than 70 percent of young people really, really want wearable technology [source: Forbes].
Fitness-related products are some of the best examples of contemporary wearable tech. The FitBit, for instance, is a bracelet that tracks steps taken, heart rate and calories burned, and it displays information from your smartphone, too, such as caller ID and message notifications.
The Move is a Pilates shirt that tracks all of your movements and logs them to software for later review. The embedded sensors also trigger vibrations if your positions are out of whack (and potentially harmful).
You can buy smart jewelry that gives you turn-by-turn navigation instructions and indicates how many new messages you have. There are heart rate rings and jackets with built-in controls that communicate with your smartphone or music player.
Designing products like these is challenging enough from an engineering standpoint. Making them appealing in a fashion sense is equally hard. Few people will wear tech just for the sake of tech; if the clothes aren't cool, too, they'll simply gather dust.
Wearable tech designers need to stay up to date on products with the greatest potential for mobile computing. And they need a keen eye for cutting-edge textile trends, too. A successful combination of the two could create the next big portable computing trend.
Medical robots account for nearly half of professional service robot sales, and for years, doctors have used robots for all sorts of medical purposes, including routine surgeries [source: McRae]. Now that the Internet is ubiquitous, robot engineers must have the knowledge to layer networking abilities into their newest robotic creations.
Medical robots generally incorporate robotics systems, sensors and surgical tools that work seamlessly with command software. Properly designed and deployed, these robots increase the productivity of a hospital, reduce the overall cost of health care and provide real benefits to the end patient.
In the next four or five decades, robots could very well take control of most surgery. Human surgeons, then, would step back and become operating room managers who monitor the robots and ensure patient safety. Robot design will be paramount to improved surgical outcomes. And those robots will definitely be connected to other products via local networks and the wider Internet.
Internet cameras, video screens, microphones and speakers will all be a part of the system. And of course, each patient will be laced with monitors for vital signs that link directly to the robot and to the surgeon.
Robot designers will need advanced skills in mechanical engineering, electrical systems and computer software in order to create their machines, which in turn will save lives.
Data security experts have been a necessity since we hit power buttons on the very first computers. These experts ward off data loss caused by malfunction and also try to prevent or mitigate purposeful attacks by hackers with malice on their minds.
The IoT means security professionals have their hands full. With billions of devices of all kinds connecting to the Internet, the chances of accidental data meltdowns will increase exponentially, as will the opportunities for intentional tampering. In 2014, more than 40 percent of companies reported some sort of data breach [source: USA Today].
There can be staggering consequences for data mishaps. Targeted attacks could take down the Internet of entire countries (see: North Korea) or, on a smaller scale, simply interrupt the functionality of a personal medical device, putting someone's health at risk.
From your toaster to your smartphone, as more and more of your devices communicate with one another, the greater the chance that a hacker will find a loophole and leverage it to her advantage. Your financial history could be exposed, your health details revealed, your personal communications used to blackmail you in some way.
Data security experts need to understand the convolutions of the Internet and protect connected devices from attack. They must be able to analyze data trends and develop plans of action to protect every kind of digitized asset, whether it's your online fitness records, smart traffic lights or your power company's equipment.
These professionals must constantly research and evaluate emerging threats and prioritize their efforts to combat those threats. And of course, in the event that a data breach occurs, they need a disaster recovery plan at all times.
In the olden days of computers – and by that, we mean several years ago – it was likely that you stored most of your important data on your computer's local hard drive. That paradigm was fraught with danger and inconvenience. If your hard drive died (a depressingly common occurrence) or you wanted access to your data while you were out of town, well, good luck to you.
Widespread high-speed Internet access, better online storage services and cheap availability of both changed everything. Now you can store all of your documents, pictures and even videos in the cloud, a collection of computer servers that is always connected to the Internet. With your laptop, tablet, or smartphone and an Internet connection, you can view and manipulate your files in your office or 1,000 miles away from home. And more than 80 percent of businesses saw improvements thanks to the power of the cloud [source: Silicon Angle].
Cloud computing may seem magical, but it's not. It takes a lot of hard work and diligence to maintain a seamless end-user experience. For that, you can thank cloud computing specialists. Most commonly, the experts who run cloud services have extensive backgrounds as systems engineers, software engineers and network administrators.
The IoT requires these employees to design and build applications that work with a huge variety of connected devices. They need the know-how to roll out their products. And of course, someone has to play administrator for these systems, which can impact millions or even billions of devices. With nearly $200 billion going toward cloud services per year in the U.S. alone, companies of all sizes will roll out the cash for the best specialists [source: Silicon Angle].
Digital devices, like some children, make for wonderful tattle tales. They hold the evidence of many wrongdoings. You just have to find a way to tease the truth out of them. That's what e-discovery investigators and computer forensics teams do.
Keep in mind that one of the key aspects of the IoT is that each connected device is uniquely identifiable. That fact should have lawyers licking their lips in anticipation and criminals rubbing their temples with worry. As more and more devices hop online, they transmit and store data that's incredibly useful for criminal investigations and civil litigation.
Investigators must understand how to uncover, collect and analyze data from a diverse array of electronics, and they must document their processes in a manner that passes muster with a judge.
For example, smartphones are increasingly common sources of evidence. Criminals, both stupid and smart, carry these devices, and in doing so, they leave behind digital footprints that sometimes lead right to the scene of a crime. To paint a picture of wrongdoing to a jury, though, a forensics investigator must pick apart phone logs, instant message transmissions and a lot of other bits and bytes in a way that's logical and accurate.
But smartphones are just one of the more obvious puzzle pieces. In the IoT, investigators are blessed with a multitude of devices that they can scour for data. The flip side is that there are so many interconnecting pieces that it might take them a lot longer to find all of the data they need to nail down the specifics of single case.
It also means that these digital detectives need a variety of interdisciplinary skills in order to best do their jobs. They need to understand both hardware and software and how to crack open both using the most current tools. They also need to understand the psychology of offenders. Even with a lot of high-tech tools at their disposal, it's easier for cops to catch a criminal if they learn to think like one.
Intermodal freight transport is industry lingo for a means of transporting goods in a single container. Typically that container is rectangular and easy to move from a large ship to a railroad car or a semi-trailer truck. Because the contents remain in one big metal box for the duration of a voyage, there's less product damage and fewer thefts.
Thanks to the IoT, containers are visible to the network from start to finish. But someone has to design and maintain that tracking system. Intermodal transport designers imagine and manage the systems that move containers in the most logical and efficient fashions.
Managers aren't just following containers. They can track truck fuel consumption to make sure drivers are using optimal speeds for every road surface. Managers can even see temperatures inside containers relative to outdoor conditions to ensure that products won't deteriorate.
With tracking software, they log and analyze how long shipping takes and how to improve those processes. They may find, for example, that the company can save 15 percent in costs by shipping via rail instead of truck. Their efforts literally pay off – the cheaper it is to transport your new washing machine, the less you pay for it at the store. They can even optimize routes in real-time. If there's a shortage of tomatoes in one city, they can reroute a shipment to fill the need.
No longer are products stuck in static transportation. The IoT makes freight shipping more dynamic and responsive to the market at every step of the way.
Malicious-minded computer hackers cause all sorts of turmoil and grief for corporations and individuals alike. In recent years, companies such as JPMorgan Chase, Sony and Target have all suffered public relations crises of enormous proportions when hackers stole privileged information. In the case of the Target hacking in 2013, as many as 40 million card numbers were compromised. And the shoppers, of course, were left picking up the pieces of financial problems and sometimes even stolen identities. In short, it's a lot like millions of people getting mugged in broad daylight.
Companies are fighting back. Instead of relying on just law enforcement computer experts, they hire their own hackers – counter hackers who anticipate attacks and actively repel them. Hackers use sophisticated software tools or sometimes social engineering schemes to access protected networks. Once they're in, counter hackers go to work.
Counter hackers have extensive training in software development and computer forensics. They can analyze an attacker's methods and even deconstruct them. For example, if a hacker manages to infect computers with malware (malicious software), the counter hacker may reverse engineer the malware to determine its purpose and mitigate its effects.
With the advent of the IoT, hackers have a lot more devices they can exploit. And counter hackers have that many more devices to protect. It's an arms race of sorts, and this battle will likely rage on for as long as the Internet exists.
The IoT holds unparalleled potential for companies all around the world. To make the most of that potential, corporations need employees who understand the interconnected nature of our collective economic future. By honing their skills for this new level of networking, tech professionals will find new challenges and opportunities for years to come.
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Author's Note: 10 New Jobs Created by the Internet of Things
For anyone who watched "The Matrix" or "Terminator" and suspected that a digitally driven nightmare scenario could really one day take over our world, the IoT is probably a little terrifying. In truth, as with so many human inventions, there is vast potential for both good and evil in the IoT. And to preserve the best aspects of these amazing tools, we'll need millions and millions of ethical and intelligent professionals who will safeguard these systems to make sure they're used to improve our society and not destroy it.
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