Grasping the Internet of Things

Internet of Things IoT13 Forum June 2013 040

Internet of Things IoT13 Forum June 2013 040 (Photo credit: marklittlewood1)

I have written several blog entries about the Internet of Things. But I have not really defined it very well. I read as many articles about the topic as I can find since I find it personally fascinating. To me this is mankind finally using computer technology to affect everyday life and goes far beyond things you can do with a PC or tablet.

I recently saw an article that summarized the direction of the Internet of Things into three categories – and this is a good description of where this is all headed. These categories are:

Knowledge of Self. This part of the Internet of things is in its infancy. But the future holds the promise that the Internet can be used to help people with self-control, mindfulness, behavior modification and training.

Today there are gimmicky things people are doing with sensors, such as counting the number of times you have opened the refrigerator as a way to remind you to lose weight. But this can be taken much further. We are not far from a time when people can use computers to help them change their behavior effectively, be that in losing weight or in getting your work done on time. Personal sensors will get to know you intimately and will be able to tell when you are daydreaming or straying from your tasks and can bring you back to what you want to accomplish. Computers can become the good angel on your shoulder should you choose that.

Probably the biggest promise in this area is that computers can be used to train anybody in almost anything they want to know. The problem with the Internet today is that it is nearly impossible in a lot of cases to distinguish between facts and fiction. But it ought to be possible to have the needed facts at your fingertips in real-time. If you have never changed a tire your own personal computer assistant will lead you through the steps and even show you videos of what to do as you do it for the first time. But such training could bring universal education to everybody in the world, which would be a gigantic transformation of mankind – and would obviate the widespread ignorance and superstitions that still come today from lack of education.

Knowledge of Others. Perhaps the two most importance in this area will be virtual presence and remote health care.

With virtual presence you will be able to participate almost anywhere as if you were there. This takes the idea of video conferencing and makes it 3D and real-time. This is going to transform the way we do business, hire employees and seek help from others.

But perhaps the biggest change is going to come in health care. Personal medical sensors are going to be able to monitor your body continuously and will alert you to any negative change. For instance, you will know when you are getting the flu at the earliest possible time so that you can take medicine to mitigate the symptoms.

There is also great promise that medical sensors will make it possible for people to live in their own homes for longer as we all age, something just about everybody wants. Sensors might even change the way we die. Over 80% of people say they want to die at home, but in 2009 only 33% did so. Medical monitoring and treatment tied to sensors ought to let a lot more of us die in the peace of our own beds.

Perhaps the biggest promise of personal monitors is the ability to detect and treat big problems before they get started. Doctors are saying that it ought to be possible to monitor for pre-cancerous cells and kill them when they first get started. If so, cancer could become a disease of the past.

Knowledge of the World. The Internet of Things promises to eventually have sensors throughout the environment. More detailed knowledge of our surroundings will let us micromanage our environment. Those who want a different amount of humidity in the air will be able to have this done automatically in rooms where they are alone.

But remote sensors hold the most promise in areas of things like manufacturing and food production. For instance, sensors can monitor a crop closely and can make sure that each part of a field gets the right amount of water and nutrition and that pests are controlled before they get out of hand. Such techniques could greatly increase the production of food per acre.

And we can monitor anything. People living near to a volcano, for example, will know far ahead of time when there has been an increase in activity.

Monitoring the wide world is going to be the last part of the Internet of Things to be implemented because it is going to require drastic new technologies in terms of small sensors and the ability to interpret what they are telling us. But a monitored world is going to be a very different world – probably one that is far safer, but also one where there is far less personal freedom – at least the freedom to publicly misbehave.

My Take on the Internet of Things

I think there might be as many different predictions about the Internet of Things as there are bloggers and pundits. So I thought I would join the fray and give my take as well. The Internet of Things is that it is going to involve a new set of technologies that will enable us to get feedback from our local environment. That is going to allow for the introduction of a new set of tools and toys, some frivolous and some revolutionary.

I have read scores of articles talking about how this is going to change daily life for households. The day may come when our households resemble the Jetsons and where we have robots with more common sense than most of us running our households, but we are many years away from that.

There will be lots of new toys and gadgets that will sometimes make our daily lives easier. For instance food we buy may have little sensors put into packaging that will tell you when your produce is getting ready to go bad so that you won’t forget to eat it. There will be better robots that can vacuum the floors and maybe even do laundry and walk the dog. But I don’t see these as revolutionary and probably not affordable for the general populace for some time. For a long time the Internet of Things is going to create toys that wealthy people or tech geeks will play with, and it will take years to get these technologies to make it into everybody’s homes. Very little of what I have been reading for household use sounds revolutionary.

The biggest revolutionary change that will directly affect the average person is medical monitoring. Within a decade or two it will be routine to have sensors always tracking your vitals so that they will know there is something wrong with you before you do. There will be little sensors in your bloodstream looking for things like cancer cells, which is going to mean that we won’t have to worry about curing cancer, we’ll head it off before it gets started. This will revolutionize healthcare to be proactive and preventative and will eventually be affordable to all.

English: A technology roadmap of the Internet ...

English: A technology roadmap of the Internet of Things. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think the most immediate big benefactor of the Internet of Things is going to be at the industrial level. For instance, it is not hard to envision soil sensors that will tell the farmer the conditions of each part of his fields so that his smart tractor can fertilize or weed each section only as appropriate. There is already work going on to produce mini-sensors that can be sent underground into oil fields to give oil geologists the most accurate picture they have ever had of the underground topology. This will make it possible to extract a lot more oil and to do so more efficiently.

Small sensors will also make it a lot easier to manufacturer complex objects or complicated molecules. This could lead to the production of new polymers and materials that will be cheaper stronger and biodegradable. It will mean that medicines can be modified to interact with your specific DNA to avoid side effects. It means 3D printing that will feel like Star Trek replicators that will be able to combine complex molecules to make food and other objects. NASA has already undertaken a project to be able to print pizza as the first step towards being able to print food in space to enable long flights to Mars.

And a lot of what the Internet of Things might mean is a bit scary. Some high-end department stores already track customers with active cell phones to see exactly how they shop. But this is going to get far more personal and with face recognition software stores are going to know everything about how you shop. They will not just know what you buy, but what you looked at and thought about buying. And they will offer you instant on-site specials to get you to buy – ads that are aimed just at you, right where you are standing.

I remember reading a science fiction book once where the ads on the street changed for each person who walked by, and we are not that far away from that reality. There are already billboards in Japan that look at the demographics in front of them and which change the ads appropriately. Add facial recognition into that equation and they will move beyond showing ads aimed at middle-aged men and instead show an ad aimed directly at you. The Internet of Things is going to create a whole new set of attacks on privacy and as a society we will need to develop strategies and policies to protect ourselves against the onslaught of billions of sensors.

Probably one of the biggest uses of new sensors will be in energy management. And this will be done on the demand end rather than the supply end. Today we all have devices that use electricity continuously even when we aren’t using them. It may not seem like a lot of power to have lights on in an empty room or to have the water warm all of the time in an automatic coffee pot, but multiply these energy uses by millions and billions and it adds up to a lot of wasted power. You read today about the smart grid, which is an effort to be more efficient with electricity mostly on the demand side. But the real efficiencies will be gained when the devices in our life can act independently to minimize power usage.

Sensor technologies will be the heart of the Internet of Things and will be able to work on tasks that nobody wants to do. For instance, small nanobots that can metabolize or bind oil could be dispatched to an oil spill to quickly minimize environmental damage. The thousands of toxic waste dumps we have created on the planet can be restored by nanobots. Harvard has been working on developing a robot bee and it is not hard to envision little flying robots that could be monitoring and protecting endangered species in the wild. We will eventually use these technologies to eat the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and to terraform Mars with an oxygen atmosphere and water.

Many of the technologies involved will be revolutionary and they will spark new debates in areas like privacy and data security. Mistakes will be made and there will be horror stories of little sensors gone awry. Some of the security monitoring will be put to bad uses by repressive regimes. But the positive things that can come out of the Internet of Things make me very excited about the next few decades.

Of course there will be a lot of bandwidth needed. The amount of raw data we will be gathering will be swamp current bandwidth needs. We are going to need bandwidth everywhere from the City to the factory to the farm, and areas without bandwidth are going to be locked out of a lot more than just not being able to stream NetFlix. The kind of bandwidth we are going to need is going to require fiber and we need to keep pushing fiber out to where people play and work.