BABBAGE is getting a little tired of all the hype surrounding the “internet of things” (IoT). To judge from some of the more breathless claims, the IoT would seem to be just around the corner. The worst offenders, no surprise, are those who expect to profit most from embedding sensors in anything and everything, and connecting them wirelessly to servers in the cloud.
The expectations are huge. Gartner, an IT consultancy in Connecticut, reckons some 26 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2020. Another consultancy, ABI Research of New York, believes the number will be 30 billion, while Cisco Systems, a network-equipment firm in California, expects there to be no fewer than 50 billion. Cisco is so enamoured of the IoT that it has installed a “connections counter” on its website. On May 26th, the number of “things” connected to the internet was over 12.4 billion and counting.
A chart published recently by zdnet.com shows how overblown the buzz about the IoT has become. The trend line for Google searches for the term “internet of things” remained essentially flat until the middle of 2013. It started to climb steadily last autumn and then went through the roof in January 2014. The crescendo seems to have reached a peak with Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition in January of Nest Labs, a Silicon Valley start-up that makes internet-savvy thermostats and smoke/carbon dioxide detectors for the home.
Such predictive exercises have a long history, going back at least to H.G. Wells at the beginning of the 20th century. More than 30 years ago, the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank, produced a book-length report on the development and potential impacts of electronic information technologies.
Today computers—and, therefore, the Internet—are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information. Nearly all of the roughly 50 petabytes (a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes) of data available on the Internet were first captured and created by human beings—by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture, or scanning a bar code. Conventional diagrams of the Internet … leave out the most numerous and important routers of all – people. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. And that’s a big deal. We’re physical, and so is our environment … You can’t eat bits, burn them to stay warm or put them in your gas tank. Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more. Yet today’s information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know more about ideas than things. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—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 has the potential to change the world, just as the Internet did. Maybe even more so
The vast majority of the billions of things connected to the internet on Cisco’s website, for instance, are not the toasters, refrigerators, thermostats, smoke detectors, pace-makers and insulin pumps that the IoT’s true believers enthuse about. Almost exclusively, they are existing smartphones, tablets, computers and routers, plus a surprising number of industrial components used to beam performance statistics back to corporate headquarters. Without any hoopla, operators of power stations, passenger jets, railways, refineries, chemical plants, oil platforms and other industrial equipment have been doing this for ages.