When we watched Dr. McCoy point the handheld sensor for his medical tricorder at a patient, who would have thought he was giving us a 40-year advance look at the science behind biochips, low tire pressure sensors and the smart grid: a science known today as the “Internet of Things.”
In 1999, Kevin Ashton, co-founder of the Auto-ID Center at MIT, used the term “Internet of Things” to describe the network of physical objects that, together, collect and exchange data. These “things” are embedded with sensors, software and electronics, and talk to one another over the internet.
All objects (including people and animals) would have a unique identifier, like an IP address. These identifiers would be connected by wireless technologies, micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and the internet. This system would be hands-off, transmitting data through a global network without requiring interaction between people or between people and their computers.
At a 2012 TEDx talk, Dr. John Barrett, Head of Academic Studies at the Cork Institute of Technology (CIT), brought us up to date on what the Internet of Things means to our world, and how far it has yet to take us.
Dr. Barrett described the Internet of Thing’s ability to connect everything in the physical world – not like the connectivity we have with each other through Facebook, Line and Skype – but connections between people, goods, machines, vehicles, buildings, animals, plants and even soil. Dr. Barrett outlined the elements needed for this system:
Notice anything about that list? We already have everything we need to run the Internet of Things. Sure, we’ll need to expand its current application, but it’s something we can do using existing technology and connecting more of this technology to more things.
The possibilities for this interconnectivity are limitless. We already have a device that those with heart problems can wear to monitor their heart rate. The Internet of Things will take a wearable heart monitor that’s web-connected, and through an app on a smartphone, connect it to a hospital’s heart monitoring system that’s equipped with sophisticated algorithms that can predict trouble and notify relatives when it detects a problem before it happens.
Most of us acknowledge that such technological sophistication has a price. Computers that know everything about us using data gathered without any help has a significant impact on our privacy, perhaps even our identity. We don’t have to be inspired by films about Armageddon for it to be a big concern.
In the late 18th century, Jeremy Benthon, British philosopher and social reformer, designed a new type of prison he called a Panopticon. His design allowed all inmates to be observed 24 hours a day without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they were being watched. Dr. Barrett acknowledges that this could become the popular perception of the Internet of Things: the ultimate global Panopticon.
Dr. Barrett prefers that the Internet of Things be looked at as a positive, even to go so far as to call it a utopia. One where everyone’s needs are met. Where there is less strife. Where our ability to track everything, greatly reduces cost, waste, loss and environmental impact.
Perhaps, if the world at large had paid more attention to what was revealed back in the 1960s to those much-maligned Trekkies, we might not have had to wait decades for the Internet of Things to take hold. As always, be careful what you wish for.