Feet of genius show we’re all connected to the Internet of Things

The online and physical worlds are merging, requiring less human involvement. Rhodri Marsden examines how a new era of unprecedented super-connectivity is changing our lives

The London 2012 Olympic Games will be the most connected ever. Not only in terms of media coverage sent digitally across the world, but also the countless devices behind the scenes that we’d never think of as requiring an internet connection, such as the environmental controls adjusting heating and air conditioning.

We’re currently living and working amid an Internet of Things, where the number of devices connected to the internet is increasing exponentially – and this doesn’t just mean profound changes at global sporting events, but also in our homes and offices. When a Digital Multimedia fridge freezer was announced by the electronics manufacturer LG back in 2006, people wondered why a fridge needed an internet connection, but five years on the concept isn’t so unusual; at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, over 50 per cent of the gadgets on display had some kind of internet connectivity.

Humans are playing a smaller and smaller role in the exchange of information online; we’re becoming an ever-shrinking component of this Internet of Things, with the number of connected devices reaching 50 billion by  2020. “It’s a concept which we are going to see explode over the next few years,” Ian Foddering, chief technology officer and technical director for Cisco UK, says. “More than ever before, people are driving devices to become internet enabled – and the power and data that they can produce is staggering.”

The term Internet of Things was coined back in 1999 by the British technology pioneer Kevin Ashton, who envisaged a time when the internet would be so ubiquitous that the notion of “going online” wouldn’t be a conscious act; the internet and physical world would become inextricably linked to one another. His prediction began to be realised during 2008 or 2009, when the number of devices connected to the internet outnumbered the people using it. The term started to be more widely circulated and today The Internet of Things is referenced in the same breath as a whole heap of technologies: smart objects equipped with sensors that push information across the internet; virtual personalities; machines that control themselves without human intervention; ambient intelligence, where computers can sense and react to the presence of humans; and, of course, the network infrastructure that quietly pulls all this stuff together.

The “things” themselves are being developed and launched all the time. We’re seeing remote controls for television sets that can sense who is holding them and offer tailored viewing choices on screen; bathroom scales that don’t so much speak your weight as tweet your weight; web-enabled thermostats that replace those fiddly plastic boxes with intelligent, reactive devices that can create your own “personalised temperature schedule” after a week of use. As already mentioned, the London Olympics will rely on online thermostats – but the event’s safety and security will also depend on the internet, with CCTV cameras hooked up to the network, while the logistics of moving athletes in and around the city will also rely on internet technology.

The motor industry has been at the forefront of the Internet of Things. It’s not difficult to transform a car into a wi-fi hotspot, embed a screen into the dashboard and bundle iTunes, Spotify, Facebook or Twitter with the car to allow entertainment and interaction during the journey. But companies like Ford and Volkswagen are now moving towards the kind of connectivity that bestows a kind of intelligence on cars. Ford and Bug Labs recently launched their open-source car software, Open XC, that’s able to perform tasks like monitoring fuel efficiency and traffic, while upgrading itself automatically over the air. Volkswagen, meanwhile, has announced its “Urban Intelligent Assist” system for the Audi range that’s making gentle nudges towards the eventual goal of autonomous driving. When Google began testing a fleet of driverless cars a couple of years ago, people were horrified at the implications – but internet-enabled navigation equipment, cameras, sensors and lasers can, in theory, drive a car better than any human. And if the number of lives lost in traffic accidents can be drastically cut, as Google claims, why not place our faith in technology?

But the Internet of Things isn’t all about offering humans opportunities for saving time and effort; it has a more important role to play in terms of managing and allocating the world’s resources, thus providing us with information to help tackle problems such as poverty. A Dutch company called Sparked has conducted tests where sensors have been implanted in the ears of cattle, allowing farmers to monitor their health, track their movements and improve yields as a result. As sensors like these become ubiquitous in all walks of life, they’ll be able to help authorities to monitor usage of utilities, or health services to keep track of hospital equipment, while initiatives such as Nasa’s Planetary Skin Institute can tackle the problems of food, water and energy security. Often, the solutions to any problems detected by the Internet of Things can be deployed automatically; they become systems that, in effect, take care of themselves.

With so many responsibilities transferred into the hands of technology, can we trust the internet to cope with the additional burden? Cisco’s network infrastructure will be taking the strain during the London Olympics, but there are global challenges posed by the Internet of Things – not least the need for each of the billions of new gadgets and sensors to have their own unique IP address. This is part of the reason for the current switchover to IPv6, a more secure new system that increases the potential number of addresses from 4.3 billion to something totally future-proof: more addresses, in fact, than there are bacterial cells on the planet.

Then, all these sensors will need to be powered; this will require substantial innovation in the world of alternative energy sources. One of the biggest breakthroughs came this time last year, when a commercially viable nanogenerator was announced at a meeting of the American Chemical Society – a system whereby our own body movements can generate electricity. “This development represents a milestone toward producing portable electronics,” Zhong Lin Wang, lead scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says. “Our nanogenerators are poised to change lives in the future.”

We’re already at a point where running shoes for Olympic athletes can monitor performance and send data instantly back to training camps; soon those sensors will be powered by the act of sprinting.

There’s no doubt that the Internet of Things will change everything. “This may seem like a bold statement,” Dave Evans, chief futurist for Cisco, says. “But consider the impact the internet already has had on education, communication, business, science, government, and humanity.” Devices will gather, analyse and distribute data, talking to each other directly and developing their own intelligence, thereby heralding the next evolution of the internet.

“With a trillion sensors embedded in the environment – all connected by computing systems, software and services – it will be possible to hear the heartbeat of the Earth,” Peter Hartwell, senior researcher at HP Labs, says. “And what does it mean for the next big event?” asks Cisco’s Ian Foddering. “What does the future look like where everyone and everything is connected?” It’s a question that may be answered in just a few Olympic Games’ time.

READ MORE

Making the Games happen How Cisco is playing a part in London 2012 The London 2012 competitors will make the headlines, but what happens behind the scenes is just as important. That’s because these Olympic and Paralympic Games aim to be the most technologically connected Games possible, reaching a vast global audience of billions through a multitude of media channels. Read more...

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