Futurist's Cheat Sheet: Internet of Things

Through the Internet, humans have connected the world. People are closer to each other than ever while still remaining apart. The next phase of the the Internet will be about connecting things. The Internet of Things will be central to the infrastructure that we build. (The "Futurist's Cheatsheet" series surveys technologies on the horizon: their promise, how likely they are, and when they might become part of our daily lives. This article is Part 5.)

What Is It?

Think of a thing. Really, it could be anything. A chair, a toaster, parts of a car, the lights in your house, the electricity meter, the security cameras in your offices, a fire hydrant, traffic lights … really, anything or everything that can exist could be connected to the Internet. Another name for the Internet of Things is a network of things. The network can monitor your home, your car, infrastructure (utilities such as electricity or water), traffic patterns and a variety of other possibilities to create a more informed and responsive system through data analysis. 

How It Works

Do you really need an Internet-connected toaster? Probably not. But, the toaster is a good place to start when discussing the Internet of Things. 

What would you expect from a smart toaster? Perhaps a touch screen on which to schedule cooking. It could be connected to the coffee pot, enabling the perfect breakfast for you as soon as you wake. Your toaster could be programmed from your computer or a mobile app. Say you are laying in bed and know you are going to sleep in the next day, pull out your smartphone and reprogram the toaster to start an hour later.

A toaster could have its own IP address on the Internet. In theory, you could visit your toaster’s site. Giving things a full IP address is one way to tie a thing to the Internet. Another way, and the way in which many things will be tied to the Internet, is for a thing to just have the ability to connect to the Internet, without and IP address.

Now, imagine that there is no digital interface on your toaster. In this case it is just a toaster that happens to have cellular or Wi-Fi capabilities and sensors to monitor how well it performs. It sends sensor data back to the manufacturer through Internet nodes and portals without an individual IP address. The manufacturer uses this data to know how its product is working in the wild, how often it is used, and use this data to make a better toaster. 

Go back and replace the word toaster with anything, say, a power meter. The same concepts apply. An Internet of Things can use the Web as an interface, or just use the Internet to move data. That data can be used to interact with the network of things or just as a pipeline where data moves two ways, analyzed and used to make objects smarter and more responsive to people’s needs. 

Potential Impact

There are so many ways that an Internet of Things could impact people’s lives that it is hard to describe everything. Distilling it to a few key areas helps define what the scope of an Internet of Things could be: infrastructure (buildings and utilities), consumer (cars and homes), health care and businesses (consumer products and retail locations). 

Weather-related sensors could help agriculture by monitoring the moisture in the air or ground and give farmer’s warning about droughts. Smart buildings can provide enhanced security for the people that enter them or warning on disasters such as earthquakes. Connected cars can improve traffic flows or allow functions to be controlled remotely. Items within the home (such as the toaster) can be controlled and monitored and even connected to each other. 

Health care is an interesting avenue for the Internet of Things. Certain aspects of the body could be connected to the Internet. Heart sensors could give patients and doctors data to prevent disease. Sensors that monitor white blood cells could give cancer or AIDS patients warning of a relapse. 

The scope and impact of the Internet of Things is almost limitless. It is just up to the innovators of the world to be creative and find ways to make it work.

Challenges

Much of the base technology that will enable and Internet of Things is available. The challenge now is to refine that technology and make it ubiquitous. 

A truly connected society involves a concerted effort from many different industry sectors such as telecommunications (the lines that would do the actual connecting), to device and appliance makers that would implant sensors and connectivity into things. Software developers would then have to create the interfaces. There are also security and privacy issues, such as keeping this mountain of data safe and away from prying eyes. Wireless standards and infrastructure also need to improve to handle all of the data that would be generated. 

When Will It Be Ready?

Many of the innovations we have written about in The Futurist’s Cheat Sheet have seeds in today’s technology. That is the same for the Internet of Things. The technology is present, but the infrastructure and stability behind it needs to be improved.

Companies specializing in machine-to-machine functions such as Numerex and KORETelematics are already in the process of designing the connected world and building business models that will help define the Internet of Things. 

The progression will be slow. There is no event horizon where suddenly the technology that is only a theory becomes a reality.

The Internet of Things is something that must be built and refined, not something like quantum computing that is waiting for a significant technological breakthrough. In five years we will start seeing more connected cars and homes.

Infrastructure like smart grids and utilities will take longer to build and we will see it evolve over the next 10 years and more. The Internet of Things will become embedded in our lives and the growth will not stop during out lifetimes. 

Additional Information

European Commission: Cluster of European Research Projects: Vision and Challenges for Realising the Internet of Things (March 2010)

IEEE: Architecture and Protocols for the Internet of Things: A Case Study (2010)

GigaOm: United States of Connectedness: What works for Internet of Things

ReadWriteWeb: Top 5 Web Trends of 2009: Internet of Things

ReadWriteWeb: Top 10 Internet of Things Developments of 2010

ReadWriteWeb: Internet of Things Explained (Video)