And, what is it?
Well, in the Internet of Things (IoT), objects, animals or people are able to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. The IoT evolves from the convergence of wireless technologies, micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) and the Internet.
In the IoT, a "thing" could be animal, vegetable, or mineral - so long as it can be assigned an IP address, and given the ability to transfer data over a network. "Smart" devices built with machine-to-machine (M2M) communication capabilities are the most common.
The Programmable World
It's a future where we're surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices, co-ordinating our activities. Some technologists describe it as Internet of Everything or the Industrial Internet - despite the fact that most devices aren’t actually on the Internet directly, communicating instead through simple wireless protocols. Others, paying homage to embedded tech, are calling it the Sensor Revolution.
But the remarkable thing isn't the sensors - or the fact that objects, sensors, and devices can be linked. Rather, it's the potential for the system to become a coherent whole. For things to be choreographed and co-ordinated like a single giant machine.
It's Going to be Huge
Estimates for the IoT market are massive: 1.9 billion devices today; 9 billion by 2018 - roughly equal to the current number of smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, wearable computers, and PCs combined.
The IoT will be a continuum of devices, sensors, and computing power that overlays entire consumer, business-to-business, and government industries.
At government and corporate levels, top applications will include:
Connected advertising and marketing: Think Internet-connected billboards, together with smart factories, and telecommuting support systems.
Intelligent traffic management: In a paper for the GSM Association, Machina projects $100 billion in revenue by 2020 for applications like toll-taking and congestion penalties. Smart management of parking-space is expected to earn $30 billion.
Waste management: In Cincinnati, USA, residential waste volume fell in 2013 by 17%, and recycling volumes grew 49% through a “pay as you throw” scheme that used IoT technology to monitor people who exceed waste limits.
Smart electricity grids: These adjust rates for peak energy usage, generating savings of $200 billion to $500 billion per year by 2025, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.
Smart water systems and meters: The cities of Doha, Sao Paulo, and Beijing have reduced leaks by 40 to 50% using sensors on pumps and other water infrastructure.
Industrial uses: Internet-managed assembly lines, connected factories, and warehouses, etc.
Production Methods Will Change
By allowing sensors, machines, production equipment, and people to communicate, manufacturing processes can be made more efficient, and less problematic. This could allow more manufacturing to be done autonomously and without supervision, leading to an increased use of robotics.
A seemingly inevitable progression. But what about the workers? Increased automation could be a labour-relations nightmare.
A study from the University of Oxford ("The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?"; 2013) ranks 702 jobs that could be replaced by technology in the next 10 to 20 years. This assumes that Artificial Intelligence (AI) won't advance dramatically in the next 20 years - which it's projected to.
New Jobs, Nonetheless
Several large tech firms (including Microsoft, Cisco and Texas Instruments) already have a Head of IoT, or Internet of Things. The position is becoming more common, as organisations recognise the need to have someone guide their clients through the changes and benefits brought by the massive growth in networked devices and items.
Suppliers will have to respond to new business demands, as the dynamics of the market change. With IoT concepts like ‘live marketing’ (where customers can base their purchases on real-time data on availability and freshness of items, fed back from shops), they'll need to step up their game.
An Economic Revolution
Many products and services have already crossed over into the IoT, including kitchen and home appliances, lighting and heating products, and car monitoring devices that allow motorists to pay insurance only for the amount of driving they do.
Innovation designer Vito Di Bari sees the addition of online intelligence to everyday objects as a catalyst for the next industrial revolution. According to Di Bari:
“Almost every product, every service will have to be redesigned, re-engineered and resold... because when we embed microchips into objects and make them intelligent, no one will want to have the dumb ones. Only idiots want idiot machines."
And a Challenge
For the Programmable World of the IoT to reach its full potential, we'll need to pass through three stages:
1. Getting more devices onto the network: More sensors, and more processors in everyday objects. More wireless links to extract data from the processors that already exist.
2. Making those devices rely on each another: Co-ordinating their actions to carry out simple tasks without human intervention.
3. Understanding the IoT as a system to be programmed: Treating it as a platform that can run software, in much the same way as a computer or smartphone.
But, more than just a playground for coders and engineers, the Internet of Things must be about us; people. As Vito Di Bari puts it:
"The only reason these things are worth something in the first place is because of the people [they ultimately engage with]."