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.