Will the Internet of things change the world?

Have you heard about the Internet of Things (IoT)? If you haven’t it’s dead easy to find information on the web and even Wikipedia has a good introductory article on the topic though you’d be forgiven if you fell asleep after the first two sections, unless of course you rejoice in IT systems architecture.

The principle, however, is simplicity itself, based on the potential of connecting various pieces of equipment over the Internet to ensure they communicate with each other, as well as with users. Many examples have been cited in the past: such as the fridge that sends you an SMS to tell you that you are running out of milk; or a packaging chip embedded in the cheese wrapper that communicates with your smartphone (presumably to tell you haven’t eaten it for a while and it may as a result go off?); or even the washing machine that (scarily) checks out your fashion sense and makes appropriate suggestions based on wear and tear and latest offers available (as if your wife or partner wasn’t enough).

There are some truly fascinating diagrams on the web that illustrate how all these various pieces of machinery may integrate with each other and with humans, reflecting the fractal and complex nature of these networks. The way these resemble neural networks is something that in a slightly dystopian manner could be used to recall science fiction scenarios where ‘things’ might also go horribly wrong – but I digress.

There are many factors that have so far prevented the advent of the IoT; one of these is the availability of IP addresses for future developments. IP addresses are like phone numbers (with profuse apologies to the techies for such crass analogy). They simply allow individual machines like computers or peripherals to communicate with each other. The current IP system permitted a mere 4bn unique combinations. This may sound like a big number but it pales into insignificance when you consider the possibility of multiply linked devices such as those highlighted above, multiplied of course by the number of people on the planet.

So in June this year, and almost completely undetected by the general media, an agreement was reached for the implementation of a new IP protocol (IPv6). This allows for a staggering number of unique connections, 3.4 x 10 to the power of 38, if you really wanted to know, which is a number so humongous that our poor brains just can’t compute it (try thinking of 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses… now head for the nearest packet of Nurofen…).

However, according to Sebastian Lange, Senior Consultant and Project Co-Ordinator of the EU funded IoT Architecture Project “IPv6 is merely one of the many ingredients in the wide ranging adoption of the IoT. One of the key ingredients which is still missing is applications interoperability, although major strides have already been made in this direction. We experienced a gap in our progress between 2005 and and 2011 but things are now hotting up and we are much closer in the interaction between the ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ worlds.” Sebastian continues, “I expect that within five years we will begin to see the launch of perhaps smartphone based solutions that would enable this kind of interoperability like, for example, temperature sensors; from then on things will move very rapidly indeed.”

If all this may sound a little remote for now just think how quickly matters have moved in just a few years in relation to mobile web access and how much this has changed the way we operate.

I foresee that the Internet of Things will definitely revolutionise the way we work, or rather the way machines work and communicate with us. Many more repetitive tasks could be automated, not just at factory floor level but inside our homes (and cars!). There will be more flexibility for people to work remotely and I predict that office spaces will eventually disappear, to be superseded by shared corporate meeting points. These technological advances will affect all areas of our day to day activities, for good. So forget the way social media has revolutionised businesses in the last few years, the IoT is 3.4 x 10 to the power of 38 bigger and it will not happen a century from now, but in the next two decades or so. Are you ready for the next major technological revolution?

Addendum – 20/05/13

..and here is how fast these things can move



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