As well as the more headline-catching features of this week’s budget, George Osborne also announced a £40 million pound fund for research into ‘the internet of things’, which underlines the potential importance of this area of technology. The internet of things (IoT) is a bizarre term that almost seems intentionally misleading, but it is set to change the way we live in small but very significant ways
The IoT is all about connected devices sharing data. According to a new book by Marc Goodman*, there are currently 13 billion devices connected on-line. By 2020, this is set to grow to 50 billion, with potential for exponential growth thereafter. With the development of tiny sensors and chips that use virtually no power, the potential exists to connect almost anything to the internet, from a yoghurt pot that orders a replacement when its lid is removed to embedded medical diagnostics that send health data to your GP.
In a newspaper review of Goodman’s book, the example is given of an alarm clock that is connected to weather reports and traffic flow data. If the weather is bad and the roads busy, it will wake you up earlier. If the weather is great and roads clear, it will allow you to have a lie-in. It will also put the kettle on, let the dog out and get your car ready for that drive to work. At the personal level, this is what the IoT is about.
From a product design perspective, it promises new projects in virtually every sector, as ‘dumb’ products are replaced by their smarter, more connected descendants.
At a societal level the picture is more mixed. On the one hand, IoT promises what – for some – is an idyllic vision of their every need being anticipated and met automatically. On the other hand, the fact that everything we interact with will be connected means that our every move will be logged. Your smart watch will reveal your lack of exercise to your health insurance company, your car will tell your insurer of your frequent speeding, and your dustbin will tell your local council that you are not following local recycling regulations.
The ability of machines to talk to each other also raises some bizarre possibilities. Italian designer Simone Rebaudengo created an experiment which allowed a series of toasters to compare how much action they were getting. If one perceived that it was not doing enough toasting, it rattled its controls to attract attention. The ‘Talkie Toaster’, beloved of fans of the TV show Red Dwarf, appears to have taken an important step closer to reality!
Whether it is houses that anticipate our needs, cars that rat on us for throwing a sicky or domestic appliances that start sulking, one thing seems sure – the future of ‘connected everything’ is not going to be boring!