BY UWE FISCHER
The German pop band Spliff saw it all coming a long time ago. In their song “Computer sind doof” (Computers are stupid) from 1982 they sang:
Der Wäschetrockner flirtet mit dem Video
und sendet Strahlen aus, ein elektronischer Zoo
Die Kaffeemaschine törnt den Toaster an
(The clothes dryer flirts with the video
And sends out rays, an electronic zoo
The coffee machine triggers the toaster)
What 35 years ago was meant as a grotesque exaggeration of the technical development in those days has in recent years become reality. Today, “Internet of Things” (IoT) is the commonly used designation for objects with the ability to transfer data without requiring direct interaction. Alternatively, the terms “Web 4.0” and “4th industrial revolution” are also wide spread, containing a similar meaning.
Internet-connected devices such as wearable technologies and machine-to-machine or M2M communications are no longer dreams of the future but only the spearhead of the revolution. According to IT-experts, IoT has the potential to fundamentally alter the way of living in modern societies.
Every day thousands of devices join the global club of internet-connected things. They turn homes into “smart homes”, cars into “smart cars”, they monitor our health and causing industrial machines to interact…the list of possibilities is endless. It goes without saying that we are dealing with a worldwide growing trillion-dollar market here.
Take the medical sector, for example: a McKinsey study  predicts that “in 2025 remote monitoring could create as much as $1.1 trillion a year in value by improving the health of chronic-disease patients.”
Therefore it is little wonder that leading technology innovators, researchers, business executives, academic professionals and governments from around the world are paving the way for a future within the emerging Internet of Things ecosphere. This is especially true in well developed countries with a high percentage of young people.
Such as Malaysia.
In the past decades, the Malaysian Government has been very decisive in modernising the country. Most notably, in 1996, Malaysia built a Special Economic Zone and high-technology business district called Multimedia Super Corridor (meanwhile renamed MSC Malaysia). The area of approximately 750 km² serves as a multimedia hub for innovative producers and users of multimedia technology. It stretches from the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and includes the towns of Putrajaya and Cyberjaya and the harbour of Port Klang. The agency that oversees the development of MSC is the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) which too was incorporated in 1996.
Two decades have passed since then, and information technology has seen an astonishing process of development and transformation. In 1996, approximately 45 million people were using the internet . 21 years later, there are more than 3.5 billion users , half of them are active on Facebook ! Most of the internet companies that determine our every life today did not even exist back in 1996. Google opened its first office in 1998, Napster, the first peer to peer network that allowed users to share music over the internet, popped up in 1999. Facebook followed in 2004, Youtube in 2005.
With the success of Facebook and similar platforms, the term “Web 2.0” became popular, referring to websites that allow users “to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to the first generation of Web 1.0-era websites where people were limited to the passive viewing of content.”
Today we speak of “Web 4.0” to describe a web of intelligence connections. It goes hand in hand with another term containing the number 4, namely the “4th industrial revolution” which is “marked by emerging technology breakthroughs in a number of fields, including robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, Internet of Things, 3D printing and autonomous vehicles.” 
Malaysia took up the challenge to build up a reputation as one of the leading digital nations worldwide. “The fourth industrial revolution is upon us and through the continuing efforts of the Government and MDEC, Malaysia has risen to become one of the leading e-commerce markets, generating a revenue of USD 2.3 billion last year alone”, Prime Minister Najib is cited on the MDEC website . One of the next targets according to MDEC is to make Malaysia the “first country in the world to introduce the Digital Free Trade Zone. For the first time, the world will have a physical and virtual zones with additional online and digital services to facilitate international eCommerce and invigorate internet based innovation.”
Ng Wan Peng, COO of MDEC, told MALAYSIA INSIGHTS: “The Digital Free Trade Zone is scheduled to be launched on 22 March 2017. Data Economy comprising IoT and BDA will be a key focus, in addition to that we are working on promoting Digital Adoption amongst the corporates and mid tier companies.” The aim is “to enhance productivity as well as identifying new sources of growth,” Ms Ng added.
The Internet of Things, too, plays a crucial role in the country’s further development. Cyberjaya, an IT-themed city in Sepang and often referred to as Malaysia’s Silicon Valley, will serve as a test bed for developing communities into ‘Smart and Safe Cities’ through IoT. The target is to implement a smart traffic management system, public safety monitoring, energy management, and various other IoT-based solutions.
A very good example of how IoT can be useful even in an agricultural setting may be studied in the district of Sabak Bernam. Located about 120km northwest of Kuala Lumpur, Sabak Bernam is an agricultural town and home to many mangrove swamps. Mangrove trees fulfill an important function in stabilising the coastline and reduce erosion from storm surges, currents, waves, and tides thanks to their intricate root system.
Due to pollution of the river and other factors the mangrove plants in Sabak Bernam have eroded over the years. The farmers tried their best to seed new plants – with little success. An IoT-driven pilot project therefore aims to support the farmers. By connecting sensors to the mangrove saplings it is possible to control their growth and compile critical information such as soil and weather conditions, as well as water levels. The information is fed to the internet allowing farmers, analysts, NGOs and the authorities to monitor the data on their mobiles and intervene should problems arise.
Other solutions coming from Malaysia’s IoT sector will be presented at CeBIT in Hanover in March 2017. “We have nine Malaysian companies taking part in this exhibition,” MATRADE’s Trade Commissioner for Germany Mr Badrul told MALAYSIA INSIGHTS. MATRADE is Malaysia’s external trade promotion agency and responsible for the organisation of the Malaysian National Pavilion at CeBIT. “We will present innovative products such as a solar-powered parking meter with smart card facilities or solutions in the security field, but also consumer technology products related to IoT devices and services. Other areas covered are the healthcare sector, finance, telecommunication any many more.” The complete list of Malaysian exhibitors can be found here.
The importance of IoT to Malaysia is also acknowledged by the National IoT Strategic Roadmap, which was rolled out in 2015 . It is expected that the implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT) would contribute RM9.5 billion (US$2.5 billion at current rates) to the country’s gross national income (GNI) by 2020, generating a total of 14,270 high-skilled employment opportunities.
But what are the best plans without dedicated and educated people to fill them with life? In Malaysia, it seems, there is no reason to worry about that. The younger generation is especially internet-savvy, not only as consumers (Malaysians are among the most active social media users worldwide ) but as creative developers as well.
In 2016, a new initiative called JOMHACK Malaysia came to life. Backed up by key industrial players as well as public and private agencies it brings together young IoT developers to compete in so-called “hackathons”. The goal of those events is to develop usable Smart City solution which can be adopted, and implemented by city council and other relevant bodies. In November 2016, one of the contests was held in Penang . 90 participants from all over the northern region joined in, building 30 teams to develop and present their ideas. Out came solutions like a “Smart Drainage System” or a smart “Electric Vehicle Monitoring System”. The first price was given to a team evaluating a “Smart Waste Management System”.
One side effect of the IoT is that it produces a huge amount of data. Therefore, not only developers are needed but also data scientists. According to an article published in New Straits Times in January 2017 , “Malaysia aims to produce 2,000 data scientists and 16,000 data professionals by 2020. Currently, there are more than 300 data scientists in the country, both local and foreign.”
Meanwhile, MDEC has more IoT projects in the pipeline. The agency is currently involved in implementing solutions in the areas of quality control and assurance, a traffic management system, smart parking, smart hospitality, and LoRa (Low Power Wide Area Network) for smart cities, among others. With ambitious projects like these, Malaysia sees itself in a “prime position to lead the digital economy”, as MDEC proudly states on its website.
Yet it is still a long way to go before the IoT has matured and thus can really be deemed an essential part of our lives. According to a research from the Internet of Things Institute  conducted in 2016, 19% of business and government professionals reported had never heard of the Internet of Things. Another 18% stated they were only vaguely familiar with it. Among consumers, the term IoT is even less known. In 2015, another study showed that only half of the American adult population (51%) has heard of the term . On the other hand, a research conducted by Forsa in September 2016 suggests that the actual implementation of IoT is indeed already widely known . The investigation has shown that 94 % of the German interviewees are familiar with the possibility to control and automate heating, windows and household appliances at home over the Internet or via app. Similar shares were measured in the case of smart cars, fitness apps and wearables.
The popularization of the concept, however, is not the most important problem to tackle. The actual development and implementation is much trickier. “There is already a significant fork in the road between the consumer-oriented Internet of Things and the rest of the IoT, which spans everything from construction, transportation, agriculture, healthcare, oil and gas, energy, and water”, according to the Internet of Things Institute (IoTI). The development of common standards and protocols, the data storage migration to the cloud and last but not least an armada of security issues including the possibility of data breaches, backdoors into home systems and vehicles being hacked by hostile intruders, need to be dealt with.
But at the end of the day, maybe the most important question is: what will all these connected items do with us? Will they protect us, entertain us, simplify our lives? Or will they patronize us, enslave us, control our lives? Do we really want to entrust the responsibility for our lives to intelligent machines? Is “intelligence” in this context benison or bane?
For IBM, the decision apparently is clear. With its software Watson – a question answering computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language – the concern is at the spearhead of the IoT. But frankly: is the following projection IBM published on its website to advertise Watson really what we want?
Imagine if you decided it was time to trim some holiday weight. And your exercise band told your fridge, “Adjust diet to lose five pounds.” And the fridge synced with the pantry, and your phone, and your car to automatically build a new diet. The system, powered by artificial intelligence, would query healthy recipes on the web, itemize their ingredients for your next trip to the store (or automatically make the purchase with an online grocer) and sync that with your calendar and your budget – all in the background. Not only that, but cognition within these networked devices would also understand how different flavor combinations work together, know your taste preferences, and devise fun, new recipes to help reduce sodium or carb intake. Chef Watson, Trainer Watson, Accountant Watson and Personal Assistant Watson all in one. 
The British rock band Electric Light Orchestra saw it all coming a long time ago. In their song “Yours Truly 2095” from 1981 they sang:
I met someone who looks a lot like you
She does the things you do, but she is an IBM
She is the latest in technology
Almost mythology, but she has a heart of stone
She has an IQ of 1,001
She has a jump suit on, and she’s also a telephone.
It looks like Jeff Lynne, the composer of that song, was not so wrong at all. Maybe except for the jump suit.