We had the ‘internet of computers, we had the ‘internet of smartphones’, but now we are in in the time of the Internet of Things, and that brings with it a whole new set of possibilities and hurdles which need to be explored.

Doctoral student Fahed Alkhabbas is now set to defend his dissertation ‘Realizing Emergent Configurations in the Internet of Things’ (IoT), which lays out some of the issues we face as technology becomes ever-increasingly intertwined into our lives.

... users should be able to achieve their goals seamlessly in different environments comprising different things.

Fahed Alkhabbas

“When we talk about the ‘things’ in the ‘Internet of Things’, we mean objects and devices like sensors, curtains, lamps, chairs, household appliances — all of these are getting connected to the internet. This opens up for the development of novel types of applications that were not there before,” says Alkhabbas.

It is now possible, for example, to set the heating in your house so it turns on as a GPS signal from your smartphone informs the app which controls the heating that you are on your way from your workplace.

“In my thesis, I look at the characteristics which make IoT systems different from the traditional systems that we have been using for the past three decades.

“I investigated how to support users to better benefit from their IoT environments. Such technology brings many benefits but, on the other hand, the number and the diverse types of things which are connected in our environment bring some complications. People might not be aware of the services that can be offered by available ‘things’ in their environments, or know how to use those things.

“These days you might have smart lamps at home from a specific brand which you install an application on your phone to control. But then, if you go to a hotel that has a different brand of lamps, and then your office, you might end up with three applications on your phone — that is not convenient.

“Instead, users should be able to achieve their goals seamlessly in different environments comprising different things. For instance, using an application that runs on a smartphone, a user can express their goal and that goal is automatically achieved. This magic is what we call ‘Emergent Configurations’ (EC). An EC is an IoT system that consists of a dynamic set of ‘things’ that cooperate temporarily to achieve a user goal.”

The situation, Alkhabbas argues, is more complex because things can be mobile and are often resource-constrained, for example, in terms of energy; things can run out of battery or malfunction suddenly. Therefore, IoT systems should be able to automatically cope with dynamic environments to maintain the achievement of user goals.

He foresees a world where, for example, users’ preferences are learned automatically in one environment and still apply when the user moves to a different environment with different types of things.

To realise ECs, the researchers proposed an abstract architectural approach, comprising of an architecture and processes, as well several novel approaches that refine the abstract approach. The approaches focus on different aspects and exploit different technologies.

Text by:Adrian Grist