Five-hundred billion.

Try to wrap your mind around that number for a moment. It’s a five with 11 zeros after it, about double what our best guess is for how many stars are in the entire Milky Way galaxy.

Try it this way: There are roughly 7.6 billion people on the planet; we’re talking about 66 times as many as that.

It’s also the number of devices that will be connected to the internet by 2025, according to Cisco’s former executive chairman and CEO John Chambers. Even as you read this sentence, tens of thousands of devices are being added to what is broadly referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT), spurring an exponential explosion of connectivity.

“What we see today is going to be double and then some next year, then double again the year after that,” said Dr. Bhabani Misra, associate dean of graduate programs and software programs at the University of St. Thomas School of Engineering. “IoT is going to grow and grow, and will be more and more a part of our life, whether we like it or not.”

Even now, IoT devices are nearly ubiquitous in everyday life: smartphones; wearable devices such as Fitbits and smart watches; household devices such as thermostats, refrigerators and coffee makers; assistant devices such as Amazon’s Echo and Alexa; and more and more vehicles.

“Over the past few years almost every device has become ‘smart,’” said Dr. Manjeet Rege, associate professor of graduate programs in software.

Virtual reality equipment and computers sit on tables in the STELAR learning space in the basement of the O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center in St. Paul.

Virtual reality equipment and computers sit on tables in the STELAR learning space in the basement of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center in St. Paul.

Crash course on a big, big thing

IoT is broader than everyday devices, though. Misra described the differing explanations of the phenomenon of IoT as akin to the proverb about six blind men touching different parts of an elephant: Each believes the portion they touch is what an elephant “is,” missing the larger truth outside their perspective.

However, there is some framework for better understanding what IoT encompasses. First among that framework, according to author Dr. Timothy Chou, is the idea there are essentially five layers to IoT: things, connect, collect, learn and do.

  • Things: smart devices themselves, which are becoming cheaper to produce all the time
  • Connect: the many ways devices can connect to the internet and each other
  • Collect: the incredible amount of data things are capable of sending and receiving, as well as where all that data is stored
  • Learn: continually developing technology that draws knowledge from all that data, especially through machine learning
  • Do: the ability of devices to take all four previous steps and improve its ability to carry out its function. In other words, informed by a constant stream of data it can collect and learn from, devices will improve all the time.

The real-world application of this continuing at an exponential rate is seemingly unlimited; it’s no understatement to say the functionality of smart devices today is just the tip of the iceberg.

“We are going to be able to solve more and more complex problems,” Misra said.

Associate Professor of electrical engineering Dr. Ramesh Rajagopalan’s research and teaching have dived into exactly that as he explores the application of biomedical devices connected to the IoT helping people with Parkinson’s disease. Rajagopalan spent the 2016-17 school year on sabbatical to team with researchers at the University of California, San Diego, which has translated into St. Thomas students contributing to the cutting-edge research as well.

“In my opinion, ‘common good’ translates to making a difference in someone’s life. Helping someone manage their health is one of the best ways you can contribute to society,” Rajagopalan said. “Health care costs are skyrocketing, and people 65 and older have challenges managing their health. With wearable devices in place, it’s been rewarding for me philosophically that my research is making a difference.”

With St. Thomas in the heart of such a rich biomedical industry region, many of Rajagopalan’s students have focused research and senior projects around medical devices. A sizable gap remains between engineering technology and what clinicians can use in their daily work, Rajagopalan said, so helping students contribute to solving the problem is a huge benefit. One example he highlighted is around the stigma of treatment for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the potential benefits of more private means of treatment thanks to personalized devices.

“We have these challenging problems that need to be solved to advance the common good,” he said. “It’s been very rewarding [to work toward that].”

A computer running virtual reality software sits on a table in the STELAR learning space in the basement of the O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center in St. Paul.

A computer running virtual reality software sits on a table in the STELAR learning space in the basement of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center in St. Paul.

Educating for the future, which is really just today

Graduate Programs in Software at St. Thomas is uniquely suited to educate within this constantly evolving landscape of IoT, machine learning and artificial intelligence. About a decade ago, the program established an advisory board of top industry leaders to discover what emerging trends and needs they were seeing. IoT soon bubbled up.

Misra reached out to Justin Grammens ’05 MS in software systems, a leader in IoT, about teaching a course two years ago, and the response was extremely positive from students. Misra, Rege and others worked with industry leaders to identify what skill set they would need to develop for students, and last spring secured approval for the program’s IoT certificate, a five-course program that joins the recently developed certificate in artificial intelligence.

“Our program is unique in the sense we do it from the ground up,” Misra said. “We model after the need of the industry and create the program from scratch.”

In this case, the needs of the industry are booming as IoT is expected to continue growing into a multitrillion-dollar aspect of the marketplace.

“Even if you as a company are not in the business of software or something like that, you’d still like to have an employee base that’s ahead of the curve and knowledgeable about what’s up and coming, and this is it,” Rege said. “The demand for [employees in these fields] is going to continue growing.”

All of this comes under the direction of St. Thomas’ mission, making sure students educated in IoT can help technology advance the common good.

“Everything we teach is about being ethical and trying to help people,” Misra said.

A brave new world

As the range of impact and applications for IoT continues to grow, Misra said, more and more people will seek out information on our collective reality.

“It’s already there. It’s today. We all live in the Internet of Things; it’s going to just increase,” Misra said. “We’ll have more and more, smart microwaves, smart houses. Aging populations may have a smart house that will monitor if they’re taking appropriate medicines. These kinds of smart houses will emerge as time passes. … Self-driving cars are improving. Who knows; there will be self-flying planes in the future because of this industry, recognizing a fire is starting somewhere in a different part of the forest, and how we can contain it better.”

“The technology today … all these are for improving our daily life, which is for the common good,” Misra said.

Read more from St. Thomas magazine.

 

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