What Is the 'Internet of Things'?

Do you remember the sound of "dial-up" Internet? For many this sound defines a decade of emerging obsessive Internet use. For my generation, it marks a decade of battling for family computer time, while simultaneously hoping that no one needed to use the landline.

We've come a long way haven't we?

In the '90s computers invaded our homes. In the 2000s computers invaded our pockets. This decade, all our clothing, accessories, vehicles, and everything (?!) appear on the verge of computerization.

Welcome to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Currently the idea of the IoT has many definitions. Most include a world in the not-too-distant future where most objects are computerized and seamlessly integrated into our information network, creating "smart" grids, homes, and environments.

By Cisco's calculations 80 "things" are coming onto the Internet every second (you can watch this in real time here). At the moment over 10.5 billion objects are on the Internet, with conservative projections estimating over 50 billion objects will be connected by 2020. If this vision is realized about 2.7 percent of "things" in the world would be connected.

But that would just be the beginning. Helen Duce, the director of the radio frequency identification (RFID) center at the University of Cambridge, recently explained her vision for the IoT:

We have a clear vision: to create a world where every object, from jumbo jets to sewing needles, is linked to the Internet. Compelling as this vision is, it is only achievable if this system is adopted by everyone everywhere. Success will be nothing less than global adoption.

Global adoption would result in between 50 and 100 trillion objects connecting to the Internet. Our entire planet would be infused with an ambient intelligence.

You may have never heard of ambient intelligence. When science-fiction films and books depict our future world, usually advanced robotics take center stage. But if we do enter the IoT age, this will be a very different type of intelligence than we are used to imagining. Instead of being in a world filled with humanoid robots, we would be in a world that can sense and respond to our presence.

In an IoT age our environment would consist of networked devices integrated into everything that a) can recognize you and your situational context, b) are personalized and tailored to your needs, and c) can anticipate your desires.

In a recent article on the phenomenon, researchers equated ambient intelligence with other concepts like pervasive computing or ubiquitous computing. They described computing technologies that would "disappear" yet be embedded within almost every human environment. This is something IBM envisioned back in 2000.

Of course, a world of ambient intelligence and a world of advanced robotics are not necessarily mutually exclusive phenomena. Just as there are people working on the IoT, there are also many people working on advanced robotics. If Ray Kurzweil and Google have it their way, we'll be in this world in the 2030s.

Either way, the IoT describes a world where everything is online, a world where we have greater control over how our system behaves.

In my first post I asked whether the Internet is evolving into a global brain. Well, if our entire world is about to become computerized, then we will be living in a "smart" environment that self-organizes itself. Whether I am right to take this phenomena and turn it into a metaphor is obviously debatable. But others have made this connection before me. And researchers are already building a mathematical model describing its emergence. So it's an idea that is worth our time, attention, and further research.

We've come a long way from dial-up. It's going to be interesting to watch as technological evolution in the 21st century unfolds.