More and more we are reading about the Internet of Things, an expression first coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton of Procter & Gamble, later MIT’s Auto-ID Centre. Morgan Franklin explains in an article on The Market Mogul website what this will do to change our lives. What do you think?
The Internet of Things Will Change Life: Four Key Areas
The so-called Internet of Things is a confusing concept at first glance. Isn’t everything ‘a thing’? And isn’t everything already on the internet, more or less?
The answer to both questions is arguably a qualified yes, but the term Internet of Things – as originally coined back in 1999 by Kevin Ashton (then of Procter & Gamble) – specifically refers to a growing network of physical objects, devices, vehicles and buildings that are embedded with smart technology.
In other words, they’re all able to transmit, receive, log and share Wi-Fi data between themselves, with the express purpose of making life more efficient, intelligent, responsive and convenient.
People have heard of – and quite possibly sniggered at – such seemingly ludicrous innovations as the Wi-Fi toaster or the egg tray that gives warnings when running low. Naturally, some of the predicted 30 billion-plus objects that will form part of the Internet of Things by 2020 will seem to have been connected for connection’s sake, offering precious few functional gains over their older, ‘dumber’ iterations.
A majority will likely seem somewhat unwieldy or intrusive at first, but precedent suggests they’ll quickly become just another staple of everyday life, much like satnav or text messaging have over the past two decades.
And, as shown below, a great many more will make a valuable contribution to human life right from the get-go – and, in fact, a surprising number of them are already doing just that.
In the Home
Flashy admin-trimming products such as fridges that send alerts when milk turns sour are one thing – but, as handy as they might prove once in a blue moon, currently, they’re still considered gimmicky.
However, a number of other innovations linked to the concept of ‘smart homes’ can and do have much more wide-ranging benefits for people and the environment. Energy efficiency is a key area for smart innovation, and ‘learning’ thermostats have already gained some impressive early traction among a rapidly expanding consumer base worldwide.
Smart thermostats work much like any other, only…well, smarter: after a brief period of manual input from the homeowner, they’ll begin to adapt to personal schedules, preferences and usage patterns. In this way, they’re soon able to optimise power and heating settings to match and predict daily habits, offering maximum efficiency throughout the house or business premises.
Inbuilt sensor technology also gives many such products the ability to adjust in real time to outside weather conditions, and to suggest more efficient settings if they calculate that we’re using power unnecessarily. Interactivity with a suite of phone apps also enables them to auto-detect when nobody’s around and power down accordingly, potentially offering massive reductions in energy consumption and significant environmental benefit.
Similar systems are of course available for monitoring and adjusting water use, security, air conditioning and household electronics – and some even already offer holistic control of the entire range from a single wall-mounted panel. Just think about how many times lights, radiators or HVAC systems are left running needlessly in homes and commercial spaces around the world, and the potential impact of this smart tech on both wallets and the planet is obvious.
In the City
Responsive data-gathering systems are already embedded all over cities and urban hubs, often in places not usually considered suitable candidates for high-tech innovation.
Take bins, for example: in some areas, solar-powered industrial trash cans are now fitted with sensors that enable them to detect when they’re nearly full, and automatically crush waste down to make more room. This simple, cost-effective upgrade has dramatically reduced the frequency of collection routes that some cities’ garbage trucks need to run, adding up to substantial savings on labour costs, fuel bills, vehicle depreciation and environmental damage.
While it’s fair to say that innovations like smarter waste disposal are currently viewed as more of a luxury with practical benefits for local authorities willing to risk the investment, other more fundamental developments are contributing directly to making hundreds of cities safer and cleaner right now.
Much of the early groundwork has focussed on traffic and transport: smart illumination on streets and highways is able to adjust to weather and ambient light conditions, as well as to detect the presence of traffic and switch on or off accordingly. Similarly, many of today’s responsive traffic lights and flow-monitoring systems can adjust their cycles to suit higher or lower vehicle volumes, cutting down on accident rates and tons of pollution from needlessly idling traffic.
Parking spaces with embedded sensors can relay Wi-Fi information about current vacancies to drivers, vastly reducing the number of polluting, road-clogging loops people drive around in search of an empty spot. Even in fast-flowing transit, smart road lanes can open or close additional bus, truck, overtaking or breakdown lanes in response to real-time data on traffic volumes, prevailing speeds and sudden incidents.
The ability of connected objects and buildings to help cut back on urban gridlock is a triple win: quicker and easier, less draining on local authority tax dollars and kindness to the planet.
In the Workplace
The big fear about smart technologies is that they’ll eventually replace people. That’s certainly a worry for some; there’s understandable concern in the professional driving industries, for example, about the progress being made in autonomous vehicle tech.
In truth though, this new smarter era will also create a great many new types of jobs, and not just in programming or design roles – after all, the Internet of Things is ultimately underpinned by the staggering quantities of data generated and collected, so a huge upswing in employment of data analysts, digital officers and customer satisfaction supervisors over the coming years is expected. And, for many, these sorts of innovations will simply make existing jobs more efficient, safer, and more environmentally sustainable.
That’s particularly true in manufacturing, where much of the early progress with smart technology is already being made. Items and output rates can now be tracked along the length of production lines, helping smooth the flow through any problem areas and adjust accordingly, reducing inefficient and potentially hazardous backlogs or breakdowns.
Moreover, chipped products can be tracked during and after distribution or sale, helping manufacturers to understand where and how their goods are being used, tailor designs or supplies according to consumer behaviours and needs, and be ready with replacements when goods near the end of their useful life.
Add to this the fact that smart technologies are making commutes less arduous, offices more pleasant, production systems more environmentally friendly and remote networking more convenient: it seems the Internet of Things will be having a dramatic impact on almost every aspect of work before long.
In both medical and fitness terms, the Internet of Things offers a significant boost to overall well-being for individuals and families.
The FitBit and the Apple Watch already exist; hugely popular wearables that track and monitor progress through any number of bespoke training regimes tweaked to suit individual goals, bodies and schedules. For millions of people, these sorts of devices are making regular exercise a more fun, accessible and (thanks to online connectivity) social pursuit, and ultimately a more tempting prospect overall.
Many more are also using an ever-expanding fleet of phone and tablet apps to monitor various other aspects of health and well-being, including sleep patterns, diet plans and heart rates. In the near future, data gathered by these sorts of devices – because, once again, it’s really all about the data – will be instantly shareable with doctors, physios, insurers and even legal teams. The potential impact of that on the efficiency of current healthcare and remuneration systems is clearly enormous.
Smart gyms and physio rooms will soon be able to evaluate fitness levels and pick out suitable programs via biometric check-in, relaying this data to nearby equipment that will instantly adjust to provide the necessary level of workout, offer corrective guidance in use, and track progress over time.
From a more strictly medical standpoint, the ability of smart devices to aid in tracking and maintaining physical health remotely is of huge value to many in society, particularly the elderly or those on long-term medication. Connected pill dispensers can send reminders or confirmations to patients and carers alike, offering crucial support for sufferers of dementia or physically degenerative illnesses.
Going a step further, subcutaneous implants can already relay real-time reports on crucial metrics like blood sugar for diabetics – in the future, they’ll even dispense appropriate medications automatically. Smart sensors, cameras and monitoring systems will in time help hospitals to become far more efficient in terms of patient turnover, offering much improved monitoring of in-house patients and allowing for earlier leaving times once progress can be tracked and advised remotely.