Thousands of blue and purple dots spring into focus as I zoom in on the world map. I move the cursor over the Japanese mainland and click one. A white dialogue box appears and proclaims that I have selected a B738 aircraft. Altitude: 40,000 feet. Speed: 372 knots.
Allow me clear the mist of ambiguity; I am not even remotely qualified to be an air traffic controller, and I am currently on my desktop computer in my parent’s basement. Too clear? I’ll keep that in mind.
So what technological trickery allows me to click on airplanes in Japan?
Thingful is a search engine that gives the geographical location of things, along with other data provided by the owners of said things. What can be connected? Pretty much anything you can slap a sensor on: shipping containers, vehicles, weather stations, animals, and infinitely more.
The site is still in an early phase of development. A blue dot in Greenland represents a weather sensor. It reveals that it is -999 degrees Celsius and, contrary to human comprehension, the wind is blowing at -999 miles per hour. Glitches aside, there is not a whole lot you can do with the information that is reliable right now.
If it is starting to seem like there is no point in reading any further, refrain from clicking away just yet! What is interesting about this search engine is that it reveals more about the future of the internet than it does about weather stations. It hints at the possibility of the Internet of Things (IoT).
That title seems redundant; there are clearly things on the internet. You’re reading this article after all. In actuality, dear reader, IoT refers not to the content of the internet, but to the devices that are connected to it.
And more than just connected, industries and techno-enthusiasts alike are anticipating a future where everything communicates via the internet.
To clarify the difference, let me use a concrete example. Look at Quirky’s Egg Minder. It sends data, like the number of eggs remaining in your fridge and how old they are, to your smartphone.Your smart phonewas already connected to the internet (although your egg tray probably wasn’t). Now, your phone is communicating withyour egg tray via the internet.
This cracks open a slew of possibilities, one of which is terrible egg puns. In future iterations, your smartphone may automatically add eggs to your grocery list when they fall to a designated number. Perhaps you will be reminded to make an omelette when your eggs reach a certain age.
As you can see, machine to machine communication is the key to the IoT. It is not necessarily about increasing ease of communication between people. It is about increasing communication between devices so that our input is not needed.
The IoT is nothing new. Earl Perkins, a research vice president at information technology firm Gartner, saysin his blog that sensors and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags have allowed industrial equipment to communicate and act independently for decades.
He also describes how the IoT doesn’t necessitate being connected to the World Wide Web where your data is public. Industrial applications thus far have mostly involved closed networks that only involve the communicating machines.
The Egg Minder is much the same, although it is conceivable that the information could be sent to the web for other purposes.Perhaps the data could be posted on social media so your friends know your omelette intake. Perhaps it could be sent to industry or government databases that track egg consumption and wastage.
Newer and smaller technology is now allowing for more complicated interaction between machines. For instance, Stanford University engineers recently showcased ant-sized RFID tags. These cheap radios could eventually be on virtually everything, allowing all parts of every machine to communicate. And this interaction will not be limited to industry; the future of the IoT is also commercial, governmental, and consumer-oriented.
While discussing the prevalence of things connected to the IoT, Jim Groom said that “you could argue they are already as ubiquitous as the smartphone” in an interview.
Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at Mary Washington University, Groom has seen the way the internet changed education; “The web was the original example of the IoT for documents, books, maps, et cetera. The web gave each of these resources a unique ID, and that still hasmajor implications on how we think about research, bound books, and physical space more generally. The IoT is simply taking that reality a new generation of appliances and devices.”
So, while the IoT is not necessarily new, it is a long way from maturity. What would it mean to have a fully realized IoT?
The Internet of Everything
According to communications company Cisco, we will have the Internet of Everything (IoE). Their website says this will happen when devices “add capabilities like context awareness, increased processing power, and energy independence, and as more people and new types of information are connected”.
Industrial IP, an advocate for the use of internet protocol, predicts that50 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2022. Cisco thinks 2020. Whatever the year, it is clear that the IoT is going to be far-reaching.
So if everything is connected to the internet, and everything is aware, energy independent, and communicating, how does life change for the average post-secondary student? Groom says that a big change could come to the classroom.
Research is being done at Mary Washington University into a so-called Incubator Room. “It has the potential to provide the ability to automatically record, stream, and archive on the web a course happening at a particular time of day”, according to Groom.
“This possibility is pushing us to explore whether we could actually have someone teach an entire course in this classroom remotely, but feel as if they are present. They can control the room cameras, switch the various inputs, screens, and share their own space back with the course.”
Education is not the only thing that could benefit from being plugged in to the web.
The entire planet could become completely connected according to Cisco’s website; “As billions and even trillions of sensors are placed around the globe and in our atmosphere, we will gain the ability to…know when our planet is healthy or sick”.
With this kind of awareness, scientists would be more equipped than ever to identify and address problems around the globe. Pollution hotspots, ecosystem imbalances, toxic leaks, anything that could go wrong would immediately notify someone somewhere: maybe even machines that can autonomously fix the problem. If we were able to track all animals, poaching could be stopped, endangered species saved, and more animal behaviour understood.
Groom points out that “the ability to track sharks on the internet thanks to the http://www.ocearch.org/ page changes what information we can amass, and how we can start tracking patterns, possibilities, and beyond” as an example.
It would almost be like the world, a once deaf and dumb patient, could now explain the pain it is feeling in its wrist, or alert us of its tummy ache. In fact, the Internet of Things could even help us do the same.
Proteus Digital Health has created an ingestible sensor that travels down your esophagus inside your medication. When it dips into stomach acid, it sends a signal to a patch on your skin which relays it to a smartphone. This will allow family members and physicians to ensure timely prescription consumption.
While I could list all of the other innovations that will help us and our physicians diagnose, track, and locate health problems and treatments, you can look at them yourself. You can also check out some very cool devices here.
The point is that, with our bodies, our devices, and the planet connected to the IoT, the efficiency and specificity with which problems are addressed will increase dramatically.
Eventually, it could be that we never need to worry about them at all.Instead of worrying about the welfare of the planet and its creatures, or your child’s sickness, or the thousands of other things we worry about, we could focus on each other.
But would an omnipresent Internet of Things really be all daffodils and daydreams?
The Price of Convenience
“The question at the heart of a massive scale of collecting and sharing through the IoT comes down to the question of data ownership...that's a gold mine for marketers and potential nightmare for data privacy concerns”, says Groom.
A glaring example of this problem has driven over 700,000 accident-free miles in the United States. Google’s self-driving car, still in development, has raised concerns about what kind of data it will collect and where the data will go. It could determine user’s daily routines and send the data back to Google to further complete their data profiles of everyone, all in the name of more effectively advertising to consumers.
The escalation of social media usage and data collection has already evidenced our willingness to sacrifice certain amounts of privacy for convenience and pleasure. But how far are we willing to go? And what kind of opportunity could that provide for criminals?
There has been no shortage of data leaks lately: private photos, credit card data, and of course, secret government data released by Edward Snowden. The amount of data available to steal is only growing, and a hacker could potentially know everything about someone: if they are home, where they are going to be, what they have, and so on. And more than just data, the very devices connected to the IoT could be hijacked or interrupted.
Groom believes that “the measures for struggling against ‘hackers’ will get just as sophisticated”. He even says that hacking can work both ways; “I'm sure the NSA didn't want the entire world to know they are spying on them, and you might say such knowledge is a favorable result of the networked world in which we live”.
At the end of the day, he says that “it's easy to play the fear and loathing card in relationship to the future of the IoT, it's a bit harder to imagine the rich possibilities”.
Where Do We Fit In?
All this talk of a connected global network of devices and data streams, leaks and communication is overwhelming. It is also missing something: the human element.
I asked Jim Groom what he wants connected to the Internet of Things. I think his response would resonate strongly with everyone reading this article.
For more insight on the Internet of Things, check out this site.
Where do humans fit into a world that can communicate problems and fix them on its own? What do we do when we are no longer necessary in the production of or even the interaction with material goods? Perhaps we could finally make progress toward the harmonious and relationship-based culture we have been struggling to attain for so long. Perhaps we could focus our creative energies towards enriching our experience rather than curing it. Or, if we look to history as our guide, maybe there will always be new problems to solve.
Regardless of what may happen, the future is not here yet, and there are still plenty of things to worry about, think about, and strive towards.