In the not-too-distant future, everything around us will be infused with data. With the help of sensors, databases, cameras and clever software, items will be able to speak to us. Welcome to the Internet of Things.
What is the Internet of Things – exactly? The term has been around long enough to feel familiar, but the full meaning is still being discovered as the concept remains in its infancy. In essence, the idea of the Internet of Things (IoT) is about connectivity: remotely controlling the heating in your house, or having a parking spot tell you when it’s empty. IoT technology means giving things, like sprinklers, bus shelters, and advertising posters, the ability to communicate with people around them.
The implications could be huge: every item around us could be embedded with a layer of digital information, ready to be tapped into via our gadget of choice. The Pew Research Center’s Internet Project called it a “world-spanning information fabric” in its major study of the future of IoT, released this April.
The report, which consulted 1,600 experts, reads like something out of Star Trek: we will be able to control all home gadgets remotely, from the refrigerator to the garden hose. Or, if we are at home, we can control them by just speaking to them. Pipes will let us know when they are broken, and so-called “smart systems” will deliver electricity more efficiently, and warn us before problems occur. Wearable devices will report when we’re in need of a medical check-up, or we can use them to keep track of the location of family members.
All this isn’t just happening on the starship Enterprise, as the beginnings of this possible future is already here. Sports watches come with heart rate monitors, and Google Glass lets users access data in QR codes, the next-generation barcode. Smart meters communicate energy usage directly to the provider. Mobile phone voice interfaces are becoming increasingly better at figuring out what we want. If you want to keep track of where your child is when they go away for the weekend, there’s an app for that.
The IoT won’t become a force to be reckoned with until 2025. At least, this is the consensus of the Pew report, which was generally optimistic that people’s live will improve as a result. And the pace of progress is rapid: Internet-connected devices already outnumbered people back in 2008, and last year there were 13 billion of them, according to Cisco. It’s predicted there will be 50 billion internet-connected devices in 2020.
Critics frequently cite the threat to privacy posed by the IoT, pointing to the massive volume of personal data collection and surveillance necessary to make it work. Still, the potential for ease and efficiency is significant:
“One positive effect of [the IoT] will be much faster, more convenient, and lower-cost medical diagnostics. This will be essential if we are to meet the health care needs of a rapidly aging Baby Boomer generation,” technology writer Patrick Tucker told the Pew researchers. ”The IoT will also improve safety in cities, as cars, networked to one another and their environment, will better avoid collisions, coordinate speed. We will all be able to bring much more situational intelligence to bear on the act of planning our day, avoiding delays or unfortunate encounters, and meeting our personal goals.”
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