If you get lost, your sneakers could help find you. The coming age of the Internet of Everything promises radical shifts in how we live, how we solve problems, and how we recover from difficulty.
The technology industry is racing to instrument and connect a vast range of things and processes in the physical and digital worlds. Several big companies have identified it as a giant opportunity—Amazon, Cisco, Ericsson, GE, IBM, and Qualcomm among them. They all believe that what many call the Internet of Everything (or IoE) could have an even bigger impact on the world than the Internet that preceded it.
The ultimate promise of the IoE is a system where machines talk to other machines to get complex tasks done on behalf of we humans. But this new movement is still primitive. What we have now is often referred to as the Internet of things, and for all its wonders it will soon seem as inadequate as dial-up modems, online services like Prodigy, and walled-off client/server networks do in relation to today’s Internet.
We are heading into an instrumented world, in which intelligence is widely distributed across the physical landscape, turning everything into, in effect, a machine.
The machines can be anything—sensors on cars talking to data centers that talk to cell phones that talk to blood pressure monitors that talk to RFID chips on boxes of Cap’n Crunch. We’re talking billions and billions of chattering things. They will all have ways—with permissions and security—to interact.
These sensors will generate enormous amounts of data we never had before from the physical world. They will almost without exception be connected together via an ever-expanding network. And then cognitive computers capable of learning and sorting information will make sense of the waves of data and give us knowledge and capabilities we never thought possible. We’ll tap that system by just asking a question, similar to when IBM’s Watson computer played Jeopardy! in 2011.
So how might that impact the real world? One example is a disaster scenario, when normal communications doesn’t work and people lose track of loved ones, with no easy way of finding them. Today, Google offers a Person Finder service, but it shows just how far we are from a completely connected network of machines and things. Google has to ask first responders to manually upload data to Person Finder or embed some Google code on their websites. It’s been a human-driven process.
In an IoE world, every ambulance and fire truck, every medical device, even clothing people wear, could talk to the network, sending information back to a database that can then interact with other databases.
Let’s say someone caught in a future disaster is wearing shoes embedded with a GPS chip that regularly sends vital statistics through the digital cloud to a database. (Nike operates such a system now with its Nike+, which knows basic data about the wearer—size, weight, heart rate.) If emergency personnel find the wearer injured and treat her on the scene, their medical instruments could automatically send readings and data about the patient to the hospital’s system. Imagine additional data from related and nearby sources triangulating. GPS devices attached to each emergency responder could show where they are and help them locate others in need of assistance.
Google’s Person Finder, or a Facebook application perhaps, could evolve into a system that, with permission, identifies all that information as connected, much like a digital private detective, piecing it together to come to conclusions on behalf of human “clients,” whether they be doctors, friends, or government agencies.
It’s hard to know what it will really look like when we get there—just as it would’ve been hard to envision Instagram or getting driving directions on a phone back in those Prodigy days.
We’re seeing the first shoots of a physical/digital Internet. Nest makes a thermostat that connects to wi-fi and learns your patterns. SmartThings and DaisyWorks make sensors that can be attached to household things and send information to the network, improving your ability to manage your home and your schedule. Trains, taxis, industrial sensors, and running shoes are getting networked and sending information to systems that manage energy use, guide city planners, and generate data that can be stored for unknown future uses. (In one Mexican city, GPS-enabled cell phones let taxi drivers share information about things like accidents, downed streetlights, and criminal activity.) Another beneficial current trend is that storage is getting so inexpensive it costs close to nothing to store data. So we can hang onto it until we know what it means.
There’s a lot to explore about the Internet of Everything. Techonomy is so convinced of the significance of these changes that it hosted a special event devoted just to discussing and better understanding it. It took place Thursday May 16 at SRI in Menlo Park, California.