Arthur C. Clarke's widely quoted proposition that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" seems particularly apt nowadays. What we would have culturally construed as magic in an earlier age is now a reality designed, planned, documented, and operated by technologists around the world. Three primary reasons underlie this reality: electronic parts have become smaller and cheaper, the world is interconnected by communications, and many people have adopted a digital lifestyle.
Our magic brooms are home-cleaning robots; our magic mirrors are smartphones, equipped with Internet search engines that work much like all-knowing oracles, answering our questions out loud in an ersatz human voice. And the idea of the Internet of Things (IoT)—a term proposed by Kevin Ashton in 1999—is that the information available on the Internet isn't produced exclusively by people, or by computerized systems, but also by the actual physical things around us such vehicles, clothes, soft drink cans, even a street bench. So what can the IoT do for humans?
We have already a vast range of developments, such as clothes that monitor your running performance via a tiny electronic device under the sole of your shoe. Some "smart cities" have already deployed networks of smart sensors to create sentient communities that are self-aware and adapt accordingly.
However, designers of web-connected products face a major technological challenge: how to make the devices self-powering. While you can afford the inconvenience of having to recharge your phone more or less every day, it's too much of a burden to devote the same sort of daily attention to another five or 10 devices. Right now, it would likely strike you as silly to have to think “I need to recharge my smart shoes” or “I should put my umbrella in standby mode.”
Some smart devices, particularly wearable and outdoor ones, can harvest enough energy from their environments in natural ways to keep functioning self-sufficiently for long periods. The most widespread examples are environmental sensors in cities and wooded areas that generate solar power using photovoltaic cells. More striking, however, are wearable devices—sports shoes and equipment, for instance—that can draw off the energy that accumulates in the materials themselves as a result of movement and flexion while being used.
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Tracking Our Daily Activities
“You can't manage what you don't measure" is among today's best-known management adages. Businesses apply this principle all the time, analyzing and cross-referencing data throughout the value chain to create products and services that provide the highest possible value at the lowest possible cost. But can we do the same thing in our everyday lives with wristbands or clips with built-in devices? Can we track all the data about our daily activities—sleeping, walking, eating, breathing—to analyze our habits? And how can we use the results of our analyses?
The Quantified Self trend has emerged in the shape of popular commercial products that exhibit the object/service duality that is the IoT's hallmark. The trigger is the physical object, which collects data from the user's environment. The object then sends the data to an online platform, the home of the service, which interprets the information, integrates it with other sources to enhance value, and reports it in user-friendly form.
The Silence of Chips
In 2009, the Commission of the European Communities released a document entitled “Internet of Things: An Action Plan for Europe," which recommended ongoing supervision of the privacy and protection of captured personal data, identification of potential risks, and creation of committees and forums to monitor the IoT. The commission placed particular emphasis on a line of action dubbed “the silence of the chips," which expresses the idea that individuals are entitled to disconnect and have sensor networks stop capturing and monitoring their activities.
The IoT paradigm poses some challenges. But it also opens up a world of opportunities because it is applicable to a wide range of sectors and markets, including logistics and transportation management, connected furniture and appliances, agricultural monitoring systems, smart clothes and accessories, toys, entertainment, and art. Experts predict that, by the end of this decade, between 20 and 50 billion products will be connected to the Internet by the end of this decade—all of them designed to make life easier for us.
We are witnessing only the early stages in the history of smart, Web-connected products. Many challenges lie ahead: security and privacy issues, product energy and maintenance needs, new product-person relationship models leading to product-user-manufacturer relationships, and new business models reflecting the object/service duality.
The magic of enchanted objects is finally becoming real. They are here to stay. And they are here to help us, opening up fascinating new horizons.
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