I recently wrote about Machine to Machine (M2M), which you can think of as the “wiring” of the Internet of Things. (My apologies for the fact that there actually will be very few "wires" involved).
The Internet of Things, commonly referred to as simply "IoT", is a concept that has been around for a while, but one that hasn't gotten full attention until recently. It is the description for all devices that are connected to the Internet, whether that be your computer and smartphone or your thermostat and front door lock. IoT is basically a fancier and more accurate term than prefixing everything with the word “smart” — as in "smart city" or "smart appliance."
The word "smart" doesn't really describe things effectively. Take the example of adding Wi-Fi and a 7 inch LCD Display to a fridge. Does that automatically make it "smart"? In fact, I think it makes it rather "dumb." That fridge doesn't know what’s inside itself, what food is spoiling or that you're in need of more milk. Imagine if it did — now THAT would be a smart appliance! But even if they aren't smart, there are ways that connected devices can be very useful.
New IoT devices are being created with amazing practical applications. Nest sells a smoke detector that can communicate with their thermostat product to turn off your furnace if it detects a build-up of carbon monoxide. Now that is smart, and can save lives. And if we think bigger, we can do even more incredible things.
We tend to have very linear ideas of how the future will play out. Things will get faster, smaller, cheaper — but will they merely be faster, smaller and cheaper versions of the same thing? Henry Ford is claimed to have said something along the lines of, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, it would have been for a faster horse-drawn carriage.”
In actuality, the “future” often takes great leaps and lateral jumps to deliver products and services by paths we could never have imagined. Think of fax machines; they didn't get faster with higher resolution, but instead they were decimated by the Internet. I also doubt many of you thought that the film in your camera was going to disappear. Could the average person have predicted that instead of fumbling with a roll of film you could insert a tiny piece of plastic and metal to store thousands of your treasured memories? And some people predicted cars would drive themselves by following cables in the roads. Self-driving cars are indeed being developed, but instead of using cables they are laden with sensors that make them aware of their surroundings to become truly autonomous.
The Internet Of Things is the sort of hyperspace leap that is possible when you connect things in ways we could not imagine. As my Daddy used to tell me, “Two heads are better than one, no matter whose two heads they are.”
Now we can't oversell the possibilities just yet. If we link all the appliances in your house together we won’t get a robot that does your housework. But we CAN have appliances that cooperate and intelligently negotiate when each draws power. This would drastically reduce the peak load for energy consumption, all without spoiling your food or heating up the house. Done on a large enough scale this could prevent the construction of entire power plants.
Most of us constantly carry a device which is full of the most powerful sensors ever made. Your smartphone probably has a GPS, an accelerometer and maybe even a barometer. It always knows exactly where it is, which way it’s pointing and where it’s going. On top of that, it has two or more high definition cameras and a range of radio antennas that are always sniffing around for the networks in the area. It isn't hard to imagine all the data being ingested by these millions of devices. They are constantly scanning and photographing the world around them, which is being pieced together into a 3-dimensional view of the visible and invisible world. Because these devices are connected, that data can be mined for things we haven't really yet imagined.
If facial recognition software can pick a hooligan out of thousands of people entering a soccer match, then it should also be possible to identify empty parking spaces from all the pictures taken of a city at any given time. The data could also inform the city which streetlights are out and which parks need mowing. In other applications, data could tell us which roads have the most potholes by measuring the severity of bumps that phones experience while we're driving. This can all be done without accessing personal information or giving up any more privacy than we already accept as the cost of “free” services.
All this takes mind boggling cloud-based computing; the type of computational power that gives you a search response in 37 milliseconds. None of the data would exist, however, without the M2M connectivity between all the devices in the world. The connections between smartphones, bus stops, parking meters, dog collars and countless other devices are now possible because of robust, reliable and affordable wireless data networks. With these connections, the Internet of Things is just getting started.
Keep reading future articles as I'll discuss how Machine to Machine and the Internet of Things will transform such areas as healthcare, education and travel.
Do you have an Internet of Things topic you'd like me to discuss? Write it in the comments below.
Image by Maurizio Pesce.