Connectivity is a word synonymous with the internet. This is hardly surprising as the very heart of the web, essentially its primary function, is connecting people. Whether it be access to the vast store of human knowledge that nestles in the millions of servers around the world, videos of teenagers hurling themselves off perfectly good buildings with the intent, and not always accomplishment, of tucking and rolling onto a nearby roof, or proud parents simply sharing the precious first images of their newborns on Facebook. The internet brings these things to us with incredible efficiency and ease.
Current estimates put the amount of people who use the web to be around 2.5 billion, with that figure set to rise in the next few years as the populations in developing nations come online. In the course of human history we’ve never been more connected to the rest of the world, but on the horizon is something that looks set to eclipse this colossus of communication. As more and more devices are arriving embedded with sensors and the ability to communicate we are experiencing the birth of a new type of network. One that promises to usher in an automated future that will see the internet of people surpassed by the internet of things.
The idea of this new system is a reasonably simple one, but the applications can become incredibly complex depending on how many devices are involved. In its basic form the internet of things incorporates devices that can communicate with other devices remotely. So if you’ve ever been out and about, remembered that you didn’t set the PVR to record Game of Thrones, used the Sky+ app on your mobile phone to instruct your Sky+ box to do so, then returned home to find it ready and waiting, you have interacted with the internet of things. The same is true if you have a Nest thermostat, and send a command from your phone to make sure the house is warm when you return. These functions are very useful and give us a greater control over elements of our environment, but they still require human interaction to complete the task. The real internet of things that technologists envision is one where the devices analyse the information available and make decisions for themselves.
‘Today computers—and, therefore, the Internet—are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information’ writes Kevin Ashton, the British technology pioneer who coined the term Internet of Things. ‘Nearly all of the roughly 50 petabytes (a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes) of data available on the Internet were first captured and created by human beings—by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a barcode. Conventional diagrams of the Internet include servers and routers and so on, but they leave out the most numerous and important routers of all: people. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world.
‘If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best.
‘We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory’
Now before you yell ‘Skynet!’ and start hoarding arms in the deserts of Mexico, it should be made clear that these decisions are more mundane than the total automation of a large superpower’s military force. A well used example is one of a washing machine and dishwasher. The owner loads both but then goes out and relies on the smart machines to talk to a national grid device which will tell them when the demand across the grid is at a low rate and therefore the most environmentally friendly time to commence their duties. A recent trial on a housing estate in the Isle of Wight that combined various energy saving devices and used the data they generated to identify hotspots, ended up saving one house £170 that year on their electricity bill. The trial has been so successful that the island is now being used as a testbed for a smart electricity grid.
Public transport services are also prime locations for smart connected devices. In London the iBus system works with information from over 8,000 buses that are fitted with GPS capabilities alongside various other sensors which relay data about the vehicle’s location and current progress. This data informs the electronic signposts at bus stops, which displays details of when the bus will arrive. It’s also sent to the Control Centre where it can trigger priority requests for traffic signals if the bus is behind schedule, thus keeping the route on time. As cars now become more connected, through things like built in mapping services, it could be that a few years from now traffic control in major cities is dynamic, responsive, even predictive, as it actively monitors the locations and speeds of every vehicle on the roads. Take it one step further and incorporate the driverless cars that Google are experimenting with and traffic jams could become a thing of myth and legend.
This location based technology is also proposed for the healthcare sector. If various medical equipment, such as defibrillators, are tagged with RFID tags then nurses can identify exactly where the necessary equipment is in a hospital at any time and retrieve it quickly. This sounds simple, but could have significant impact on the ability to spend more time with patients and the administering of treatments in often time critical situations. Patients themselves could also benefit from smarter technologies when they return home. One example offered by the EU’s Information Society and Directorate- General is that of a pill box that can tell if someone has forgotten to take their medicine. This would then trigger an email or automated phone call to a relative informing them of the potential danger.
The real vision for the future of the internet of things is that these various smaller applications will converge to form a whole. A constantly updating database of information that can, thanks to Big Data analytical techniques, be interpreted in real time and produce valuable and relevant information for the user. Imagine if you are the relative of the aforementioned patient who forgot their medicine. You receive the alert, are able to know their location, check their vital signs remotely to see if they are falling ill, then be informed by your car’s navigation system which hospital has the most free beds, the clearest traffic route to get there, and even where you can park.
While many of these ideas are still in their infancy the rapid advances in technology we’re seeing now is making them a real possibility. There are still large hurdles to overcome, such as the protocol that these devices will use and the threat to privacy that this much identifiable data presents, but the potential gains make this an area that is seeing incredible levels in investment from major corporations. It’s estimated that by 2020 there will be over 50 billion connected devices on the planet, that’s around six per person. If we can harness this power and build a communication framework to support it, then what seems like the realms of science fiction now could be a reality that we see in just a handful of years.
This article originally appeared on the PC Advisor website and in the print magazine as part of a monthly section I write entitled News Viewpoint. To see that version please click here, or purchase a copy of the fine magazine from your local newsagent.