Science fiction has given form to our imaginations when it comes to a life lived in the technological future. Yet while these influences give us something to strive for—or perhaps, resist—we often simply don’t notice the technological revolutions happening around us. Consider, for a moment, the capabilities of your cell phone today compared to that of just ten years ago. Advances in portable computing have made the Internet widespread for conventional uses. The next major step, then, is expanding the Internet far beyond the conventional. Welcome to the next frontier: The Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things (IoT) describes the scenario in which everyday objects, appliances, or people are identifiable and can communicate over a network without requiring much or any human interaction. It sounds straightforward, but in reality is a major departure from what we do now. Currently, computers rely almost exclusively on human beings to input information—human beings who are prone to inefficiency and unreliability. The advantage of The Internet of Things, according to Kevin Ashton, the man who coined the term, is that “we would be able to track and count everything and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling and whether they were fresh or past their best.”
The Internet of Things will encompass many realms: consumer goods, manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, healthcare, environmental management, energy distribution, and countless other areas. The key to all of this working is that we are finally able to produce incredibly small, low cost, low power microprocessors and sensors that can be embedded virtually anywhere. These electronics can collect data and transfer it over networks autonomously where it can be used for any number of applications. The increasing popularity of the term “smart” to describe products like televisions and watches is an early indicator of the trend toward this connectivity. According to research by tech firm Gartner Inc., IoT (which excludes smartphones, tablets, and PCs) contained 900 million devices in 2009. By 2020, that number is expected to grow to 26 billion.
One of the first areas we’ll see IoT show up in is home and building automation. Google recently acquired Nest Labs for $3.2 billion. Nest produced a thermostat that learns how and when you like to set the temperature of your house and factors in outside weather—all so it can anticipate and make those adjustments by itself, saving money and power consumption. This concept will eventually be applied to things like lighting and irrigation, once again based on a combination of sensors and the networked resources that can intelligently make use of them. These advancements will take some time to integrate into our lives, since cost will be a factor when it comes to upgrading larger infrastructure and public utilities. After all, most cities develop over the course of decades–they’re not exactly fertile ground for quick technological “upgrades”.
That won’t stop governments from planning and building completely new cities, however, with the sustainability of the Internet of Things as a guiding principle. In fact, that is exactly what’s happening in South Korea. Songdo, currently under construction, is aiming to be the world’s “smartest” city. Purpose-built for convenience in both business and leisure (the city boasts 40% area dedicated to green spaces), it is designed to embrace the Internet of Things while limiting carbon output. Its waste management system, for example, is an absolute marvel: every dwelling is connected to underground tubes that carry trash directly to sorting facilities where it is automatically processed and treated. No garbage trucks necessary. Sensors embedded in streets monitor traffic, improving reaction times for accident response and allowing street lights to be turned off when there’s no one around.
Cisco, which is overseeing all of these network-based technologies, has produced a short video series describing their work in the city. Songdo is impressive for many reasons, and its success will go a long way toward proving the viability of smart technologies for other cities. In the meantime, the Internet of Things will continue to infiltrate and reshape our lives, bit by bit.