Sustainability, AI and 5G: What does the future hold for IoT?

25 Mar 2020

Image: © greenbutterfly/

Dr Jernej Hribar of the Connect Centre at TCD gives a glimpse of the future of IoT, where cities and autonomous vehicles are seamlessly connected.

For years, the topic of the internet things (IoT) has lingered long in the minds of technologists, city planners and businesses as a major component of the so-called industry 4.0 revolution. Now, the pace at which technology is advancing is helping to speed up this revolution, most notably the arrival of commercial 5G, AI and connected vehicles.

So what does the future hold for these technologies within IoT, and are they potentially putting our environment at risk by unleashing millions of tiny devices on the world? spoke to Dr Jernej Hribar of the Connect Centre at Trinity College Dublin to get his perspective on our future, hyperconnected world.

‘5G is opening new possibilities on how we can deploy and manage IoT devices’

What does current AI excel at in IoT and what needs improvement?

At present, AI in IoT is extremely well used to efficiently manage available assets. For example, we are very good at using AI for better waste management or controlling the public lighting system in a city.

The main advantage of AI is its ability to take advantage of an enormous amount of information collected by sensors to make more informed decisions. The trends we have seen in the last few years indicate a tremendous rise in the number of deployed devices.

From small-scale proof-of-concept deployment seen a decade ago to full-scale city-wide deployment that we now can see, for example, in Singapore. Intelligently controlling all these devices and processing their data is a challenge.

The telecommunications community is exploring how to integrate AI solutions into the network. Most noticeably, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has a special focus group to analyse the use of machine learning, which is a branch of AI, in future networks.

How much of a challenge is it to integrate AI into legacy IoT systems?

To deploy AI we require certain resources, such as processing power, which are often not freely available in the legacy systems.

On the other hand, a system that was operational for a long time has collected a substantial amount of data that might ease the application of AI. At the end of the day, the decision to integrate AI into a legacy IoT system depends on what benefits AI will bring to the table. If the gain outweighs the cost, then it is definitely worth doing.

Headshot of Jernej Hribar smiling in a blue t-shirt against a dark background.

Dr Jernej Hribar, Connect Centre/TCD. Image: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

What sectors stand to gain the most from the adoption of AI in IoT?

In my opinion, autonomous vehicles is the sector that will probably have the most to gain from AI and the synergies it brings to the IoT. Vehicles, to be truly autonomous, will have to interact seamlessly with their surroundings, and deployed IoT sensors can help greatly in this effort.

Lately, we have seen a lot of progress on that front in telecommunications. For example, Qualcomm developed cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) communication technology, which enables vehicles to exchange information with each other and surrounding assets.

The main roles I see AI playing in all this will be to decide which information will be passed to vehicles – for example, up-to-date road conditions. Also, to facilitate other assets connected to the IoT network, such as smart traffic lights, to maximise their role in bringing the benefits of the smart city to the vehicle user.

What role will 5G play in making IoT smarter?

The main benefit of 5G will be the use of narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), which will enable everyone to connect sensors and actuators to the internet using the mobile network.

With the easier deployment of IoT devices, we can expect to see more data being collected. This will, in turn, fuel new AI applications to make IoT smarter. In short, 5G is opening new possibilities on how we can deploy and manage IoT devices.

What do you see as the next big breakthrough in this field?

I think that one of the main challenges IoT has to overcome in the near future is sustainability. When you deploy millions of sensors in a city, they have a certain environmental impact which needs to be minimised.

For example, in my work at the Connect Centre in Trinity College Dublin, I am analysing the data IoT devices are collecting and leveraging that information to make them more energy efficient.

Another approach that I think has tremendous potential to make a huge difference in the future is making IoT devices biodegradable. If that technology works, we will be able to deploy sensors which will simply dissolve and disappear after they outlive their usefulness.