How often have you seen something on TV or (heaven forbid) in a newspaper that announced some brave new tomorrow was just around the corner? Or maybe more to the point, how often have you read a story about robot cars, ovens with that night’s dinner inside that you can start from work, or a doorbell at your front door with a hidden camera that allows you to see who’s at your front door, again maybe while you are still away at work? Well this is the brave new world of “The Internet of Things”, or maybe as it is coming to be widely known, IoT.
Semiconductor manufacturers have been making integrated circuits (aka IC’s) on a commercial scale since the late 20th century. The first products made were either a logic circuit or a memory circuit. Both of these broad categories had many sub-categories like CPU or ASIC for logic, DRAM or Flash for memory, and of course, these sub-categories had their own sub-sub-categories. Over the years these various devices have become smaller and more capable: faster and able to hold ever vaster amounts of information. A direct consequence of these changes, the development of the smart phone and the omnipresence of the internet, the IoT generation is now upon us. It is now technically possible and commercially feasible to place a chip within just about any household device and have it communicate via the internet to your smart phone.
But the big picture is far bigger than just our homes; IoT extends in areas all over our civilization. What is now taking place is M2M or machine to machine communication via the internet and the cloud. IoT has been given a tremendous boost via cloud-based computing. That is to say, the sensors in your refrigerator merely have to gather the information obtained within the refrigerator (e.g. temperature, storage utilization, etc.), send that data to the cloud. Once the data is within the cloud, the programs that once ran in your PC’s CPU run now in the cloud. These programs can manipulate the refrigerator data and then send a message to your phone letting you know it’s time to buy milk. From a technology point of view, the sensors don’t have to compute, they merely have to sense and report. This keeps the sensors cheap and small.
Such a home-bound capability is nice, to be sure. But according to Daniel Burrus in Wired Magazine, the real advantage will come when we wire our roads and bridges with sensors that can detect their physical condition. He asks us to consider the 2007 bridge collapse in Minnesota. If that bridge had sensors that could detect unacceptable levels of movement in the steel plates within the roadway (for example), that bridge may well have been closed to traffic long before the fatal collapse took place. Burrus does not stop with the plates but includes such items as “smart cement”; that is cement capable of reports cracks to some monitoring authority.
The key commercial component to these lifesaving capabilities is that the IoT will have unforeseen consequences in terms of new products (e.g. smart cement), new jobs, new materials, and likely new technologies that are currently impossible to predict. Consider some ideas: more efficient traffic flow, grain silos that report how full they are, oil wells that can detect corroded pipelines. One aspect of all these changes is the ability to predict an event based on data and take preventative action before some problem, potentially catastrophic problem occurs: fix the bridge plates, replace the oil pipeline, etc. The savings of life and material can be significant.
How will these seemingly disparate subjects combine in a future world that might be only 5 years in the future create new opportunities for business and people to flourish in ways not yet possible? It is as with previous disruptive technologies difficult to say with precision. It is certain, though, that change is coming, just as it once did with the transistor, integrated chip, internet and smart phones. The one constant in our modern lives is that nothing stays the same; “there is no constancy in that particular constant.”