The Internet of Things is coming and it could Change Everything)

1969 was one of the most important years in living history. Mankind finally set foot on the moon, an event that had for so long seemed to be an impossible dream. While this feat dominated the newspaper headlines, just weeks later another event which would profoundly change the world passed by almost unnoticed.

On 2 September 1969 a computer at the University of California transmitted a message to a second computer located at the Stanford Research Institute some 400 miles away. This message, which was supposed to read “login” but only got as far as “lo” before it crashed the system, was the first transmission ever made on the network that would eventually become the internet.

The first human footsteps on the moon sent shockwaves around the world, but confident predictions of permanent human settlements on our lunar neighbour have so far proved well wide of the mark. However, the internet, from such humble beginnings, has had an impact that is difficult to overstate.

Any account of the most important innovations of the twentieth century would have to place the internet well towards the top of the list, but the internet is evolving and the twenty-first century looks set to be dominated by the Internet of Things.

What is the Internet of Things?

In 2015 more than 3 billion people from across the globe accessed the internet, but in the same year there were around 5 billion devices connected. The internet doesn’t just allow humans to share information with other humans, it’s becoming increasingly important as a platform to enable billions of physical objects (or things) to communicate with each other, and with us.

When the University of California transmitted the first message ever to be sent across the internet (or the ARPANET as it was then known) in 1969, computers were enormously expensive and big enough to fill an entire room. As computing power has become progressively cheaper and vastly more powerful, it has now become both possible and economically viable to connect almost anything to the internet.

Any object (or thing) fitted with a sensor to transmit data to the internet is part of this growing Internet of Things. The most obvious examples are mobile phones, but the Internet of Things is a diverse place and the things in question can include fridges, cars, toasters, buildings, animals, and a good deal else besides.

Virtually any physical object can now be fitted with sensors and added to the network. Even such unlikely additions as smart cement can be included on the list. This innovation enables sensors to be embedded in the concrete itself during the pouring process. They then become part of the permanent structure, with the capability to alert construction experts to any potential defects or weaknesses.

The Internet of Things Today

While the excitement around the possibilities of the Internet of Things has been growing in recent years, it’s fair to say the idea isn’t entirely new. The first ATMs were connected to the internet in 1974, one lonely toaster went online in 1990, and in 1994 Steve Mann developed the first wearable wireless webcam.

However, these were merely the first baby steps in the history of the Internet of Things, and it is just now beginning to become a ubiquitous presence in everyday life.

In 2008 there were, for the first time, more objects connected to the internet than there were people. Smart phones allow us to draw on an almost infinite quantity of information at the touch of a screen from virtually anywhere in the world, boilers can learn their owner’s schedule and adjust the heating accordingly, fridges that monitor their own supply of milk and automatically order fresh supplies are no longer entirely the preserve of science fiction, and Google’s driverless cars have already clocked up more than 1.5 million miles on the road.

In San Diego the entire city’s streetlight system has been equipped with sensors and hooked up to the internet. This innovative system allows the lights to sense pedestrians and motorists and dim or illuminate accordingly, delivering annual savings in the region of $250,000.

Several other cities around the world are already experimenting with connecting trashcans to the internet. This innovation, sometimes dubbed the Internet of Bins, promises to deliver considerable savings. Data collected from the bins themselves, transmitted to the internet, and then automatically analysed by specialised applications, allows waste to be collected economically and efficiently.

Smart cities will be homes to smart industries, and Harley Davidson are one of the first companies to embrace the new possibilities. With thousands of sensors now monitoring almost every aspect of the production process, Harley Davidson have the ability to immediately identify and rectify and problems or bottlenecks on their factory floor. The results speak for themselves with the company producing 25% more motorcycles whilst simultaneously cutting costs.

The Internet of Things Tomorrow

With the price of some individual sensors now coming in at well below a pound, and the cost of keeping each of these sensors connected to the internet about equivalent to one text message a month, the Internet of Things is already growing exponentially.

The 5 billion or so things connected today are predicted to become as many as 50 billion by 2020. In 2015 IBM announced their intention to invest $3 billion over four years into their Internet of Things division. Samsung, Hitachi and many other such giants are making similar commitments of their own.

That so many innovative tech companies are making aggressive moves to stake their claim to a share of the market comes as no surprise given the potential rewards at stake. John Chambers, the Chief Executive Officer of Cisco System, has predicted that the global Internet of Things market could soon be worth as much as $19 trillion – that’s about equivalent to the annual GDP of Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and India combined.

Whether the Internet of Things can truly deliver results on such a grand scale remains to be seen, but given the figures involved innovators would be well advised to sit up and take notice. We may well be seeing the beginnings of a new industrial revolution with the Internet of Things at its beating heart, or perhaps more accurately as the central nervous system that connects the entire planet.

The next few years and decades will see almost everything in the world linked to almost everything else. Governments and businesses will have access to a near infinite amount of data, and almost every aspect of society and industry look set to be transformed. In some instances the changes will be of incremental improvement, but elsewhere the impact is likely to be more dramatic with new sectors and markets emerging and others being swept away in a tidal wave of innovation and disruption.

The possibilities, and the dangers, have only just begun to be explored, but the Internet of Things could be set to change everything.

 

Is the Age of Innovation Coming to an End?

Innovation is the engine that drives the world’s economy forwards. For the vast majority of human history there was effectively no such thing as economic growth. Lives were often brutal and short, but they were played out against a backdrop that scarcely changed from generation to generation. It was only with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and a wave of world-changing innovations that economic growth suddenly and dramatically took off.

After several hundred years of extraordinary innovation and technological gains, we have come to see rapid progress and substantial economic growth as the norm. The march of technology hardly seems to be even close to having played itself out. Anybody with just a few hundred pounds to spare can purchase a laptop that packs more computing punch than even a military supercomputer from the early 1990s. The rise of quantum computing1 offers the tantalising prospect of yet greater gains in the future.

The future of innovation and progress seems assured, and yet there are several experts who have recently begun to question this assumption.

Could we really be witnessing the end of innovation?

Economic growth in the United Kingdom, and in virtually the whole of the Western world, has slowed dramatically over the last ten years. Is this the result of a temporary downturn, or is it indicative of a far deeper and more intractable problem? If innovation is the prime driver of economic growth2 and prosperity, then has something gone horribly wrong with our innovation engine?

Jonathan Huebner3, a prominent physicist working with the Pentagon, has suggested that humanity is entering a new dark age of technological innovation. In Huebner’s view we are already approaching the limits of what is technologically possible, with the constraints of human brainpower and economic reality slamming on the brakes. Whilst it might be humanly possible to dig a canal across North America and link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, or even to establish a permanent colony on the moon, it’s not economically viable to do so.

Having plotted the number of important inventions and scientific breakthroughs over the last few hundred years, Huebner has come to some startling conclusions. When offset against population growth, the rate of innovation peaked as far back as the mid-1800s and has been in a state of general decline ever since. By 2024, according to Huebner, the rate of important technological developments per year per billion people will have fallen to a level not seen since the 1600s.

Huebner’s argument is not so much that innovation itself is dead, but rather that the big gains have already been made and cannot and will not be repeated. If this view is correct, then we will no longer be able to count on invention and innovation to drive the economy forward. The collapse in growth might not be just a temporary problem, but a crisis that could threaten the very fabric of society.

A history of pessimism

Huebner is not alone in being pessimistic about the future, but very similar concerns have been raised before only to be proved unfounded.

In 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus predicted the unprecedented boom in population would soon far outstrip4 the growth in agricultural production, with dire consequences for humanity. Innovations in chemical fertilizers, irrigation, and mechanization have since seen the human population expand eightfold. Whilst there must be a limit to the number of people our planet can support, innovation has so far more than kept pace with the increases and the chief problem today is one of finding an equitable means of distribution of food rather than of production.

At the end of the nineteenth century is was widely believed that science had already accomplished almost everything that could be accomplished. All of the important breakthroughs in physics5, and in almost everything else, had already been made. There was little left to do but consolidate the gains. Fortunately, the likes of Albert Einstein and many other remained unconvinced, and the following years revolutionised our understanding of the universe and our place in it.

Predicting the future isn’t easy, but even Huebner’s analysis of the history of innovation has been called into question. In Huebner’s study it was Huebner himself who decided what did and did not qualify as an important innovation. This hardly constitutes an objective approach, and the results deserve to be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism.

The case for optimism

While Huebner claims the age of innovation is drawing to a close, neither he nor anybody else can know what surprises might lie just around the corner.

Innovation is an inherently unpredictable beast. To innovate is to come up with an idea, solve a problem, or find a new way of doing things that has never been conceived of before. The very nature of innovation makes it impossible to know with any certainty where it will lead.

Some of the possible innovations of the future are at least within the realms of our imagination. Cold fusion, for instance, holds out the tantalising prospect of an effectively unlimited supply of clean energy. If the puzzle of cold fusion can be unlocked, and companies such as Lockheed Martin are currently investing in attempting to find the key, then it would be arguably the most important innovation since the invention of the wheel.

While cold fusion remains on the fringes of scientific possibility, at least for the time being, the exponential increase in technology and computing power are very real and will continue to open up exciting new possibilities.

Computers are now beginning to become very good at the things they used to struggle with. Artificial intelligence can drive cars, beat the best human players6 at games such as chess and Go, recognise faces, and even dream.

With such a powerful tool at our disposal we are no longer limited to the power of the human mind alone, and the twenty-first century will see a wave of innovation with human intelligence and artificial intelligence working in concert.

Links:

1 – http://www.techradar.com/news/computing/the-mind-blowing-possibilities-of-quantum-computing-663261

2 – http://www.innovationfiles.org/fueling-innovation-the-role-of-rd-in-economic-growth/

3 – http://accelerating.org/articles/InnovationHuebnerTFSC2005.pdf

4 – http://www.economicsdiscussion.net/articles/malthusian-theory-of-population-explained-with-its-criticism/1521

5 – http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/themes/physics/karlsson/

6 – http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/google-deepmind-computer-beats-go-champion-lee-se-dol-in-shock-4-1-victory-a6931876.html