About a decade ago, I would stand in the middle of a square somewhere and imagine that everything I saw could and would one day be possibly connected.
In my mind that was not such a new idea. Animists in Africa and Asia have for centuries talked about "living" inanimate objects, believing that things had a soul and taking good care of them. Humans are meaning-making machines, so we invest inanimate landscapes and objects with all kinds of qualities that they cannot really possess.
Ten years on, that daydream is becoming a reality with the Internet of Things. Loosely defined as a global process to enhance all objects with some kind of digital address, IoT is already coming to you: to your home as the smart meter that will streamline all your electrical appliances; to your connected car that will have distance sensors and eCall to alert accidents; and to your body as a patch in an intelligent T-shirt or the Siemens hearing aid that aims to pick up the fire truck noise and soften it before you “hear” it. In terms of "the next big thing" this is as big as fire and the book.
And it’s inevitable. Why? Because a confluence of historical factors has come together to make what was once the domain of science fiction a reality. Let’s quickly take a look at those drivers.
The first factor dates all the way back to 1974: the ubiquitous barcode. This showed that standard organizations were able to synchronize data streams between competitors. The second is RFID, the friend-foe Near Field Communication technology brought under the penny cost by MIT around 2000. The third driver is the incredible cheapness of database storage needed to collect, store and work on trillions of 'hits’ and pieces of data. In fact, by the end of the ’90s database costs were the largest barrier to the IoT. The fourth is IPV6, the Internet Protocol replacing IPV4. With it we can expect internet addresses in anything that has software in it: your toothbrush, coffee machine, fridge, washing machine. Technologically thus IoT is an ecology of barcodes, QR codes, RFID, NFC, active sensors, wifi and Ipv6. Nothing fancy; mostly radio, quite mundane.
The next factors in the IoT are more intangible than hardware and tech. In 1991, Mark Weiser, the father of ubiquitous computing published his groundbreaking text The Computer for the 21th Century, in which he argued that computers had gotten smaller, ubiquitous and faster yet he was still accessing his with a keyboard and a mouse. He wanted a more intuitive interaction with all the intelligence harnessed in the network of networked computers. He was talking about design and interactivity, which is the fifth factor in the IoT.
The sixth driver is us. Ourselves. We have jumped on the Internet, mobile phones, smartphones, iPads, social networks like no other technological invention before. We can not deny that as a species the drive is towards more connectivity, more awareness of where people and objects are and an ever-growing synergy between all the different applications and services, none of which can survive on its own any more.
The challenge we are facing today is not how can we stop or guide this process, as it is going so fast. No, the challenge is how can we make sure that this process that is inevitable is inclusive and open.
Why does it need to be inclusive and open? We have seen what the Internet has done in fewer than twenty years in terms of facilitating collaboration and sharing. Its backbone is radically democratic. No King, no magnate, no bully can make messages go faster. This has enabled people across the world to start collaborating on a different plane than money: online status, reputation, the sheer joy of helping somebody out, being part of incremental steps building Wikipedia, Linux and Wikileaks. This trend is global and driving. People are sharing cars and tools. The Internet of Things will enable small and growing groups of people not only to share media, movies and status updates, but mission critical services like energy.
But today we find ourselves at the crossroads. Current forms of decision-making, forms that fear transparency and speed of action, will break under the weight of the collaborating protocols of the Internet and the Internet of Things. Yet this should not be seen as an attack on the system but as the hyper realization of all the collaborative aspects and elements that made up the process of democracy itself. Instead, it should be seen as a fertile ground for innovation. IoT can be build like the Internet. TCP/IP can be a hardware and organizational model and protocol; a global backbone of smart interoperable grids parsed to Climate Change and on the ground autonomous local decision-making: the Internet of neighborhoods.
While a fully functioning Internet of Things is still to come, China proves an interesting example of what to expect. Known to the Chinese as the Sensing Planet, huge investments in smart energy grids and all kinds of sensors have been deployed in large scale. The majority of current Chinese leadership is engineers and their R&D can steer on infrastructure, services, legal context, appliances and hardware.
In his timely text, The Internet of Things: Ignored by the Candidates but Not by China, W. David Stephenson writes, "while our government remains silent, both the EU and China actively fund research projects, deploy IoT technology and create policies to govern it, raising the specter that we will be forced to buy vital technologies from abroad." Although he rightly notices that the USA drive is at the level of cities and that IBM/CISCO is relatively successful in deploying smart cities as
"Intelligent Operation Centers," it cannot be disputed that at US government level there little coordination in terms of societal innovation.
The EU has a long tradition in funding research programs in this area. Its current projects and flagships such as IoT-A aims at providing a Reference Architecture for IoT architects worldwide, focusing on interoperability as the key issue that will bring us hopefully a true Internet, and not thousands of intranets of things.
Governmental actions aside, the most interesting aspect in the growth of Internet of Things harks back to that base human desire to bring to life the inanimate. With a vibrant open-source DIY community, fueled by tools and software such as Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Processing, 3D Printing and DIY drones, some of the most innovative connective platforms are coming not from nations or corporations, but enterprising people’s bedrooms. It’s inevitable that with the technological capacity and the curious human nature that my seemingly impossible dream of standing in the middle of a completely interconnected public square is soon to be reality.
Rob van Kranenburg is a teacher and author of The Internet of Things, a critique of ambient technology and the all-seeing network of RFID. He founded Council and is a founding member of bricolabs and Internet of People, a cooperative consultancy that aims to help government and business in steering IoT together with citizens. He is involved in two EU projects: IoT-i, which is creating an ethics label, and as Stakeholder Coordinator for IoT-A. You can hear van Kranenburg speak on the Internet of Things at the upcoming PICNIC conference, Sept. 17-18 in Amsterdam. Readers interested in attending the event can receive 30% off registration by entering the promo code PICN!cc30.