As Objects Go Online
Since 1969, when the first bit of data was transmitted over what would come to be known as the Internet, that global network has evolved from linking mainframe computers to connecting personal computers and now mobile devices. By 2010, the number of computers on the Internet had surpassed the number of people on earth.
Yet that impressive growth is about to be overshadowed as the things around us start going online as well, part of what is called “the Internet of Things.” Thanks to advances in circuits and software, it is now possible to make a Web server that fits on (or in) a fingertip for $1. When embedded in everyday objects, these small computers can send and receive information via the Internet so that a coffeemaker can turn on when a person gets out of bed and turn off when a cup is loaded into a dishwasher, a stoplight can communicate with roads to route cars around traffic, a building can operate more efficiently by knowing where people are and what they’re doing, and even the health of the whole planet can be monitored in real time by aggregating the data from all such devices.
Linking the digital and physical worlds in these ways will have profound implications for both. But this future won’t be realized unless the Internet of Things learns from the history of the Internet. The open standards and decentralized design of the Internet won out over competing proprietary systems and centralized control by offering fewer obstacles to innovation and growth. This battle has resurfaced with the proliferation of conflicting visions of how devices should communicate. The challenge is primarily organizational, rather then technological, a contest between command-and-control technology and distributed solutions. The Internet of Things demands the latter, and openness will eventually triumph.
THE CONNECTED LIFE
The Internet of Things is not just science fiction; it has already arrived. Some of the things currently networked together send data over the public Internet, and some communicate over secure private networks, but all share common protocols that allow them to interoperate to help solve profound problems.
Take energy inefficiency. Buildings account for three-quarters of all electricity use in the United States, and of that, about one-third is wasted. Lights stay on when there is natural light available, and air is cooled even when the weather outside is more comfortable or a room is unoccupied. Sometimes fans move air in the wrong direction or heating and cooling systems are operated simultaneously. This enormous amount of waste persists because the behavior of thermostats and light bulbs are set when buildings are constructed; the wiring is fixed and the controllers are inaccessible. Only when the infrastructure itself becomes intelligent, with networked sensors and actuators, can the efficiency of a building be improved over the course of its lifetime.
Health care is another area of huge promise. The mismanagement of medication, for example, costs the health-care system billions of dollars per year. Shelves and pill bottles connected to the Internet can alert a forgetful patient when to take a pill, a pharmacist to make a refill, and a doctor when a dose is missed. Floors can call for help if a senior citizen has fallen, helping the elderly live independently. Wearable sensors could monitor one’s activity throughout the day and serve as personal coaches, improving health and saving costs.
Countless futuristic “smart houses” have yet to generate much interest in living in them. But the Internet of Things succeeds to the extent that it is invisible. A refrigerator could communicate with a grocery store to reorder food, with a bathroom scale to monitor a diet, with a power utility to lower electricity consumption during peak demand, and with its manufacturer when maintenance is needed. Switches and lights in a house could adapt to how spaces are used and to the time of day. Thermostats with access to calendars, beds, and cars could plan heating and cooling based on the location of the house’s occupants. Utilities today provide power and plumbing; these new services would provide safety, comfort, and convenience.
In cities, the Internet of Things will collect a wealth of new data. Understanding the flow of vehicles, utilities, and people is essential to maximizing the productivity of each, but traditionally, this has been measured poorly, if at all. If every street lamp, fire hydrant, bus, and crosswalk were connected to the Internet, then a city could generate real-time readouts of what’s working and what’s not. Rather than keeping this information internally, city hall could share open-source data sets with developers, as some cities are already doing.
Weather, agricultural inputs, and pollution levels all change with more local variation than can be captured by point measurements and remote sensing. But when the cost of an Internet connection falls far enough, these phenomena can all be measured precisely. Networking nature can help conserve animate, as well as inanimate, resources; an emerging “interspecies Internet” is linking elephants, dolphins, great apes, and other animals for the purposes of enrichment, research, and preservation.
The ultimate realization of the Internet of Things will be to transmit actual things through the Internet. Users can already send descriptions of objects that can be made with personal digital fabrication tools, such as 3-D printers and laser cutters. As data turn into things and things into data, long manufacturing supply chains can be replaced by a process of shipping data over the Internet to local production facilities that would make objects on demand, where and when they were needed… MORE