Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Internet of things

The Internet did change the world drastically. The Internet of things was supposed to change the world much more drastically than what the Internet did.  So what exactly does internet of things refers to? Internet of things refers to uniquely identifiable objects (things) and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure.

As Ashton who coined the phrase “Internet of things” remarked “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. ” What happened to this potential of changing the world?

I believe that communications is the missing piece of the puzzle. These uniquely identifiable objects will be much more useful if they are able to communicate. Being able to receive and send data to the gazillions of devices in an efficient fashion will make possible several services that will improve quality of human life and address economic inefficiencies.  This will also result in less wasteful usage of resources. 

Examples of some such services include efficient usage of resources that make up the smart grid by measuring and communicating various quantities such as temperature, current, voltage to the right places (utility offices), making human life better by measuring and communicating various quantities such as blood pressure, sugar levels, heart beat etc to the right places (physician’s offices), condition based maintenance of various machines like current transformers, capacitor bank controllers, etc etc.  The resulting operational efficiencies can result in tremendous savings for various organizations in many different sectors of human life.  In fact many more services than what we can imagine now will be made possible.

One might question as to why do we claim that communications is the missing piece of the puzzle here. To answer this, consider cellular communications. All humans were “uniquely” identifiable but then the spread of wireless communication made possible services that changed the quality of human life. Various services such as commerce, gps based directions, application stores (Appstore), micro-lending, planning for crop planting etc have become possible due to the rapid expansion of wireless communication.  Services that were not thought of before the wireless communication revolution are now commonplace.

Note that internet by itself did not make this possible since Internet did not have the aspect of personalized communication possible with cellular networks.  Cell phones are always on and are permanently carried by humans and they are personalized in the sense that typically there is a single human owner for each cell phone. Thus the cell phone seems to have provided the wireless communication link for the human carrying the cell phone.  These are the aspects of cell phones that revolutionized human life. And I believe that providing a communication link to such devices will help realize the potential associated with ‘Internet of things’.

Of course providing the communication link to the gazillions of devices seems like an easy problem to solve. All that we need to do is to enable these gazillions of devices to use the cell phone networks and we have made communication possible. Surely this should lead to the services I was referring to earlier. So then, why have we not seen this? 

The solution is not as simple.  There are several challenges all stemming from the fact that human communication is very different from device communication. We will get into details of several of these challenges in future articles.