“The time has come,” the Walrus said; “To talk of many things; Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax; Of cabbages–and kings..”
These lines from Lewis Caroll’s famous poem have been uttered so many times by economists who talk of global trade and commerce that many young economists may be forgiven for thinking that Lewis Caroll was an economist.
Forget economics, Lewis Carroll might well have been talking of Internet of Things.
Already today, there are many “things” besides personal computers connected to the Internet. These include mobile devices such as phones and tablets, large computers providing essential services such as online banking, and larger industrial scale machines such as power plants and even nuclear reactors. Connectivity is now an essential feature of managing services and assets across all walks of life.
This network is expected to grow bigger and bigger. Analysts predict anywhere from 25 billion to several hundred billion things will be connected to the Internet by 2020.
For those mathematically inclined, progressing from the current state of networks to the Internet of things, will be like moving up an entire dimension – much like the quantum leap in mathematics of moving from “Euclidean” or two dimensional geometry to “solid” or three dimensional geometry.
Data collected from one device will be sent over the Internet to others to sift through and reveal patterns of end user behaviour. Already, providers of video on demand services, for example, such as Netflix and Hulu are able to generate immediate results on what shows or box sets are popular in what city at what time.
Data analytics will be at the core of the Internet of Things.
Personal Internet of Things (IOT)
The personal IOT will connect the things we own and use everyday: watches, wrist bands, glasses, and in the future also perhaps connected clothes and shoes and other personal items with tiny processors embedded in them. Other things around the house – electrical appliances, gadgets, and even light bulbs, will be connected or will at least will come with the capability of being connected and ultimately connected cars and even connected cities.
Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest, a provider of home automation solutions: programmable, sensor-driven, wifi enabled thermostats, smoke detectors, and other security systems, acknowledges the importance of connected living in the not too distant future (Google has now also handed over its home grown Google Glass to Nest) and not, as some have mistakenly commented, for increasing search engine revenues. Valleywag, Silicon’s Valley’s rumour blog crassly joked, “if your house is burning you’ll now get gmail ads for fire extinguishers.”
The Industrial IOT
Industry giants also see plants and platforms connecting over what is being called the industrial Internet enabling these assets to operate more efficiently and economically. GE recently announced that it is spinning off its most profitable business – GE Capital – to concentrate on its industrials business units. A key theme in its new strategy is to develop what it calls the “brilliant factory”, in which a “plant’s equipment, suppliers’ machines, and distributors’ machines” will all communicate continuously to perfect the production process.
Sensors and Tiny Brains
At the heart of it all, bridging the real and virtual worlds, are specially designed sensors, collecting and feeding back data for processing.
Sensors on a home appliance will measure the temperature within the machine and outside to regulate or adjust the task it is required to execute regulating its controls automatically on its own.
Tiny microprocessors will work together with sensors to run tasks according to pre-programmed algorithms and decision logic making life more convenient if to some extent on remote control.
The Size Challenge
The real challenge for the personal IOT is in going small and flexible making sensors and processors that are small and flexible fitting easily and invisibly on thousands of personal items and operating under extreme conditions and surviving extraordinary wear and tear. But processors, experts have warned, are already very small leading some to argue that Moore’s Law – the informal observation from the 1960’s of Gordon Moore, founder of Intel – that the number of transistors on a chip double every year for the same cost – may not hold true any more because the chips are already so tiny that it will be inefficient to shrink them further. Intel’s Cannonlake processors now set to appear in 2017 are said to be so small that the size of its “gate” – a key element in a transistor – is “ reckoned to be… little more than a couple of silicon atoms across.” It can’t get any smaller. The challenge is in reducing the whole circuit of microprocessor, wireless, and power source and “as many features as possible” on what is being called “systems on a chip” or SOC.
The Cost Challenge
Equally important will be to get the SOC costs down and to manufacture these control kits on an industrial scale, by the billions perhaps, and manufacture them very cheaply so much so that some observers believe these in the future these might be sold by weight rather than by number. Some may even be disposable meant for one time use providing useful data in hostile environments before they disintegrate, dissolve, or get discarded.
Fog and Cloud
Current wisdom suggests that everything will move to the cloud – to servers with immense storage and power located in colder climates and in facilities specially built for the purpose.
However, in the IOT, elements of this intelligence may actually be located closer to the sensors, rather than all on the cloud, in a configuration called the “fog” architecture – locating processing power and machine intelligence and even some storage capacity near the sensor – or on the network’s “edge” as geeks prefer to call it. Fogging may emerge as the preferable architecture for the IOT of the future.
Hype or Solid Thinking?
There are always the cautious who advise us – often rightly – against the extravagant hope of hype and our wide-eyed belief in technology.
But we need to remain open minded.
Lewis Caroll’s real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Incidentally, he was a mathematician and logician who taught at Oxford University and who just happened to write beautiful poetry and prose. Despite his soaring imagination, he held out for Euclidean principles against the “modern substitutes” of solid geometry just emerging at the end of the 19th century.
Sometimes even the best of us can mistake the future for hype.