In a matter of years, could we see fridges connecting with supermarkets and whole cities ‘thinking’ for themselves? Those who enthuse about the Internet of Things believe that this may become an everyday occurrence.
The wise man built his house upon the rock, so the old song goes. In the future, the measure of intelligence may lie not merely in the owner’s choice of plot, but in whether he built his house to make its own decisions too. Indeed, your home could soon be controlling its own electricity usage – chatting with the rest of the neighbourhood in order to prevent power surges, and switching things off when it realises everyone’s gone to the cinema. It may still not be as wise as you, but you won’t be able to say that the lights are on and nobody’s home.
Welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT). As we speak, everyday objects are being fitted with sensors and processors in order to record data about their usage and, increasingly, communicate that information via networks to other gadgets. This is heralding a new reality in which our phones, thermostats and even street lamps are using real-time data to make their own ‘decisions’, blurring the line between the virtual world and the real one – and in theory making our lives more efficient.
With humans being erased from any critical role in this process, it’s easy to slate this as a sci-fi scenario. But the IoT is not something of the distant future – in March, Prime Minister David Cameron announced an additional £45 million funding for the development of IoT technology, taking government funding in the sector to £73 million, according to the BBC. The PM described it as “the brink of a new industrial revolution”, and given the IoT’s potential impact on our productivity, health, and energy efficiency, plenty of others have made the same point.
Even the most PR-savvy politician can’t simply conjure an industrial revolution from nowhere, but the IoT has been given a foot-up by decades of development from scores of modern Stephensons and Brunels. According to the International Telecommunication Union, there are now 6.8bn sim-enabled devices at use in the world, and 70% of those in developed markets are smartphones – running on processors that aren’t dissimilar to the chips that power our PCs. And with similar developments in connectivity – with 4G, wi-fi and bluetooth increasing their reach – the IoT appears ready to reach critical mass.
“We’re hitting the sweet spot,” says Ben Barringer, Technology Research Analyst at Quilter Cheviot. “We have faster processors, which can now be as small as 1.2mm-square. And, crucially, the technology is cheap enough too: for less than $1.50 you can get the CPU, the connectivity, and a sensor to detect everything from temperature and movement to user authenticity. And that’s everything you need for an IoT device.
“Why not put one of these processors into an air-con unit that costs $200? When it breaks down it can then contact the service team by itself and get them out, with the right parts. Even better, it can predict that it’s going to break down soon, and tell you what the fault will be. And all that efficiency saving justifies the extra $1.50 going into making the product.”
The IoT has already proven its value, working away largely unnoticed for years in industry, with applications in everything from agriculture – monitoring and regulating the acidity of soil – to mining. A truck will get better fuel efficiency at different speeds, depending how full the load is. If you can automate those calculations, you’ll save money. In farming, meanwhile, it could be used to reduce the number of cows dying during labour, by alerting sleeping farmers as to when it’s happening.
As for more mainstream, everyday applications, things have been slower to take off. But it’s happening. In February, Google spent $3.2 billion to acquire Nest, maker of the Learning Thermostat, which can talk to other thermostats and regulate energy usage to protect against surges. It’s the first mass-market IoT product to capture the public imagination, and is being billed as the first step towards the ‘smart home’.
Its success certainly offers clues as to how others may follow. “It won’t be a case of ‘you can log onto Facebook on your fridge’,” says Daniel Fogg, who has worked with IoT extensively in the defence sector and is now co-founder of the IoT-connected Good Night Lamp. “The IoT really gets interesting when you add a smart service layer to an object to make a genuine improvement to lives. For example, a company like Tesco would be a good candidate to add a service layer to a connected fridge: the fridge could relate to Tesco’s database, so it knows what products inside are reaching their off-dates.”
Fantasy to reality
And of course that’s just the beginning. From smart metering to make your energy bills more efficient, to wearable technology through which parents can monitor their diabetic child’s blood-glucose levels, the IoT could soon be everywhere. And it won’t just be talking to you or to the internet – in the smart city of PlanIT Valley, now being built in Portugal, traffic signals will communicate with the fire department to route traffic away from a disaster as it happens.
As David Cameron suggests, these devices may be nattering far sooner than you’d imagine. Gartner says there will be 26 billion devices in the IoT by 2020. Cisco, which has a wider definition of the term ‘Internet of Everything’, says it will be 50 billion-strong by 2020. “First up, that’s a very big number,” says Barringer. “Secondly, this will all seem natural by the end of the decade.” Any new technology comes with its share of scare stories – take the recent headline news of a smart fridge being hacked and sending its owner spam (of the digital kind). But with the amount of gains to be made by tech companies, and indeed major corporations, by these unprecedented levels of connectivity, it doesn’t take something as smart as your house to realise that such issues will soon be written off as mere teething troubles.
Still in doubt about the potential you have in your pocket? You only need to look back at the desktop PC revolution to see just how great the impact of such IoT devices could be. “You used to need a typewriter to type a document, or an accountant to handle your numbers,” says Barringer. “Now we all use Word and Excel without thinking. Connected devices will result in a similarly large increase in personal productivity, making our lives and the allocation of resources more efficient.”
“These devices may be nattering far sooner than you’d imagine”