III.

Smart devices revolution

The computing revolution moved one step further when smart devices made their way into our lives. But what are smart devices? Simply put, they are electronic gadgets that can connect, share and interact both with users and other smart devices, up to a certain degree autonomously.

To be “smart” a device has to have three main characteristics, namely:

  • It uses sensors to recognise its environment (also called “context awareness”): cameras, microphones, GPS receivers and other types of sensors collect information about the environment at any given time and adapt behaviours according to a set of pre-established rules or through computational intelligence.

  • It does autonomous computing: a device or multiple devices are able to perform tasks autonomously without the direct command of the user. For example, when our smartphones independently use context data to make decisions or suggestions based on our geolocation or the weather.

  • It is connected: smart devices are connected to a data network to communicate or receive information. Without connectivity, there is no point in a smart device being autonomous and having context awareness.

Adding to the advantages offered by using computers in many activities, smart devices take performance and efficiency to a new level.

They are instrumental for the digital revolution, as they are designed to provide specific and valuable service, doing so by dynamically adapting to their changing contexts and taking actions based on their operating conditions. That service can be as simple as scheduling turning lights on and off in your phone, or as complex as climate control algorithms that optimise the temperature and humidity for growing crops.

What about user interaction and portability?

Contrary to popular belief, not all smart devices need to interact with a human. If you think they do, it’s because you are only considering the most common smart devices, such as smartphones or smartwatches, but there are so many other possibilities. A smart device can have direct or indirect contact with people. For example, a smartwatch collects health data and transmits it to a phone application. A user will see that data and be able to use it as they wish, but it doesn’t require any specific intervention from them.

Likewise, smart devices can be portable, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Think about a smart doorbell: it is attached at the entrance door and uses its built-in motion sensors and camera (context awareness) to recognise movement close to the door (autonomous computing) and notifies the house owner through a dedicated app (connectivity) when someone is there. In this example, portability is not needed.

Through their amazing capabilities of collecting, computing, analysing and transmitting an enormous amount of data, smart devices have become central to the next phase of the digital revolution, supporting the emergence of new technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing and so on. This will be discussed in greater detail in course number two.

Smart devices

In the meantime, let’s have a look at how we can use smart devices to create “smart environments” in our daily lives:

Smartphones

Smartphones have become the centrepiece of our “smart” lives. What gives intelligence and awareness to our smartphones are the array of sensors embedded in each device. Today’s smartphones are equipped with around fourteen sensors depending on the model: a proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscopic sensor, magnetometer, ambient sound sensor, barometer, touchscreen sensor, heart rate monitor, and more. Thanks to these components, smartphones can be used for personal emergency response, fitness tracking, location-based tracking and natural vision processing. Identity verification, GPS-based guidance and position/orientation awareness apps and games are well suited for smartphone-based implementation.

Over the past decade, as they have become increasingly affordable and with greater processing capabilities, smartphones have revolutionised our lives in ways that go well beyond how we communicate. Besides calling, texting and emailing, more than two billion people around the world now use these devices to navigate, book car rides, compare product reviews and prices, follow the news, watch movies, listen to music, play video games, record vacations, and participate in social media. Smartphones play an important role in handling other smart devices too, as they have hardware capable of providing access to dedicated mobile apps that allow users to remotely control different gadgets.

It’s undeniable that smartphone technology has yielded many benefits for society, such as allowing millions of people who lack access to banks to conduct financial transactions, for example, or enabling rescue workers in a disaster zone to pinpoint precisely where their help is needed most urgently.

Example
Fingerprint scan with a smartphone

How does a smartphone scan a fingerprint?

Today, many smartphones are locked and unlocked using our fingerprints. This is possible thanks to a fingerprint scanner, which is a type of electronic security system that uses fingerprints for biometric authentication. Most smartphones today use the technology behind capacitive scanners which, as the name suggests, make use of capacitors to measure your finger electrically. Capacitors store electrical charge and capacitive sensors use arrays of tiny capacitor circuits to collect data about a fingerprint through conductive plates on the surface of the scanner. These conductive plates track a fingerprint’s details.

When a finger’s ridge is placed over a conductive plate, the charge stored in the capacitor will slightly change, whereas an air gap will leave the stored charge comparatively unchanged. An operational amplifier integrator circuit is then used to track these changes which are recorded by an analogue-to-digital converter. This system is hard to fool as the result cannot be replicated with an image; it can only be affected by hardware or software hacking.

You can do a lot more than just read fingerprints using these scanners – a number of higher-end smartphones also support swipe and navigation features using their fingerprint scanners.

Smart homes

When we talk about smart homes, we mainly refer to remote access to our home's systems, as well as more efficient use of different home appliances. It all depends on the customisations we choose, but remote access can allow us to check in on our home through video surveillance; turn off the lights we left on; even unlock the door to let guests in. For some people with disabilities or injuries, the ability to control devices via voice activation or an app can significantly improve their quality of life, allowing them to live more independently and pleasurably.

A smart home could include the following devices:

  • Entertainment system: smart TVs are becoming more and more popular as besides the traditional function of television, they offer more advanced computing ability and connectivity, allowing users to access applications like web browsers, games, social media or on-demand content platforms. To this we can add a smart multi-room audio system that allows us to stream music from different devices and control the volume, or to play different music in different parts of the house.

  • Virtual assistant: these are devices that can perform tasks or services based on commands or questions. They are capable of voice interaction, playing music, making to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic and other real-time information, such as news.

  • Smart home appliances: these are all about optimisation, from heating to electricity. Smart appliances work to collect data about their usage and then make adjustments to help cut consumption. For instance, a smart thermostat can recognise the times of the day that you don't need as much heat and adjust accordingly. Other popular options include fridges, stoves and ovens. When smart, these appliances can help you recognise when food is past its prime or give you the ability to see how your cake is doing in the oven without having to open the door. Fire, carbon dioxide and flooding sensors send notifications to our phone if they are triggered and can also be silenced through the phone app.

  • Home monitoring: these devices can include smart surveillance cameras and security systems, smart locks or smart doorbells. Remote access provides a complete overview of different monitoring functions and allows us to be in control of our home’s security system.

A hand holding a smartphone with smart home devices in the backgound

Note

Tips to make your smart home more secure

While smart devices can add a level of convenience to our lives, they can also be targeted by cybercriminals, similar to thieves trying to break into our houses. That’s why it’s important to have a defence plan – here are a few tips on how to secure smart home devices:

  • Change default usernames and passwords. Cybercriminals probably already know the default passwords that come with many smart devices and that makes it easy for them to access them and, potentially, the information they store.

  • Use strong, unique passwords for Wi-Fi networks and device accounts and change them regularly. Avoid common words or passwords that are easy to guess, such as “password” or “123456.” Instead, use unique, complex passwords made up of letters, numbers and symbols. You might also consider using password management software for this.

  • Use two-factor authentication where possible. This is a security process in which users provide two different authentication factors to verify themselves, such as a password and a one-time code sent to your mobile phone. If your smart-device apps offer two-factor authentication, or 2FA, use it.

  • Check the settings of your devices. Your smart devices come with default privacy and security settings. Check them carefully and consider changing them depending on your needs. Likewise, disable any feature you may not need.

  • Set up a guest network. Keep your Wi-Fi account private and set-up a different guest network for visitors, friends and relatives to use, so it doesn’t link to your smart devices. Also, don’t access your devices from a public network.

  • Keep your software and hardware up to date. When your smartphone manufacturer sends you a software update, don’t put off installing it – it might be a patch for a security flaw. Mobile security is important since you may connect to your smart home through mobile devices. Your IoT device manufacturers may also send you updates, or you might have to visit their websites to check for them. Be sure to download updates and apply them to your devices to help stay safe. Make sure the hardware is also in good shape or consider replacing it, and check if newer models offer stronger security.

You can learn more about cybersecurity in our cybersecurity online course.

Smart office

Smart offices take advantage of technology to help organisations work productively and collaborate effectively. They use connectivity and analytics to ensure the workplace is equipped at any given time for the specific needs of employees, allowing workspaces to adapt and evolve as organisations change and grow.

Smart offices combine a variety of different tools and technologies to support more productive and automated work, such as:

  • Smart monitoring systems that integrate cameras and sensors to analyse the use of office spaces. These tools provide information about which spaces are used for different types of meetings, giving building managers insight into the spaces people prefer to use, so they can plan any necessary adjustments to the office layout.

  • Intelligent climate and lighting control systems that detect preferences and usage patterns and regulate lighting and temperature accordingly. They are used to improve the use of building resources, but also increase employee well-being resulting in better productivity.

More smart options

  • Medical alert buttons: these are lightweight, waterproof buttons that a person can wear around their neck, on their wrist, or even just carry with them. The button connects to an intercom system that, when activated by a push, calls a medical monitoring centre. If needed, someone from the call centre can alert a contact person or call emergency services for the patient. Some buttons can even sense when the wearer has fallen and will alert the call centre automatically.

  • Smart cars: beyond having advanced electronics, smart cars also connect to the manual operations of the vehicle like parking assist and collision sensors and may also have some degree of autonomous driving capabilities. Some smart cars have integrated a modern automatic emergency notification system, in which sensors on the vehicle connect with a central support organisation and relay distress signals when there is a collision or some sort of mechanical failure. These same systems also allow for voice interaction between the driver and remote personnel who can alert authorities and thus provide assistance to an injured driver.

  • Smart pet care: for example, smart feeders that automatically dispense food and water for your pets. Using an app on your phone you can schedule feeding times and control portion sizes.

No doubt technological advancements have changed how we go about our daily lives, but they have also transformed our culture. By speeding up almost every aspect of our lives and making everything easier, personal computers have created a convenience culture. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, whatever we want, we now expect to get it. In the next chapters we will see how the computing revolution has played a part in supporting other technologies in the digital transformation of our societies.

Part summary

After completing chapter 2, you should be able to:

  • Explain the link between hardware and software and how they work together to make a computer system function correctly.

  • Understand the importance of hardware as an enabler of technology.

  • Recognise the hardware components of a computer and the connection between them needed for a computer to function optimally.

  • Explain the functionalities that make a device “smart”.

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III. The software and application revolution