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From the internet of ideas to the internet of things
Imagine Googling your home to find out if you have left your passport on the kitchen table. Or receiving a text from your freezer to tell you which items you need to restock. Or being tweeted by your spin-dryer to say that your clothes are still wet and need an extra cycle.
These are examples of the so-called 'internet of things', where objects ranging from radio sets to road surfaces, minibars to multi-storey car parks and light-bulbs to lasers will have an online presence, generating data that could be put to uses currently unimagined.
Lamont Wood (I01, INAG) explains that industry-watchers disagree only on how far developed is the internet of things and which science-fiction setting best depicts what is coming.
For example, it is already possible to buy GPS-equipped shoes which enable people to follow on computer the route they have walked, the distance travelled, the gradients climbed and so on. The shoes can even be set up to send a text message if the wearer steps outside set zones.
Cars fitted with a black-box journey recorder are lowering insurance premiums for young drivers by monitoring to ensure that they are not driving too fast, or late at night, or outside the zone they have been allocated. Buses fitted with GPS equipment are relaying information in real time to stops down the route, indicating to waiting passengers when the next bus will arrive. And hospitals are fitting patients with devices to monitor their condition and alert nurses to when medicines are required.
The internet of things will not only automate contact with human beings, but also involve 'conversations' between machines. W. Brian Arthur (I16, MCK) uses the example of freight shipped through the Dutch port of Rotterdam to the centre of Europe to illustrate how.
'Twenty years ago, people with clipboards would be registering arrival, checking manifests, filling out paperwork, and telephoning forward destinations to let other people know,' he explains. 'Now such shipments go through a radio-frequency identification (RFID) portal where they are scanned, digitally captured and automatically dispatched.'
The RFID portal converses digitally with the originating shipper, other depots, other suppliers and destinations along the route, all keeping track and reconfiguring the routing when necessary.
'What used to be done by humans is now executed as a series of conversations among remotely located servers,' says the author.
Lamont Wood predicts that there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020, and that there will be social networks to connect them. While technical barriers to such applications are few, the limiting factor is likely to be the cost of the micro-components, the bandwidth of the wireless networks, business strategies and the ability of humans to absorb so much information.
Another potential problem is that users will often want their data to remain private. There appears to be no ready answer to how that can be ensured.
'Cars, buildings, medicine, entertainment, even advertising -- it appears that the internet of things will eventually touch nearly all aspects of life,' Lamont Wood concludes. 'The end result could be as unimaginable today as the modern electric power grid would have been to Benjamin Franklin.'
Or as W. Brian Arthur would have it: 'Every 60 years or so a body of technology comes along and over several decades quietly, almost unnoticeably, transforms the economy…Digitization is creating a second economy that is vast, automatic and invisible – thereby bringing the biggest change since the Industrial Revolution.'
Watch out, there's a sensor about!