From a single toaster evolved a world of more than eight billion connected ‘things’ – the Internet of Things.
The most profound technologies … disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.
In 1990, the information and telecommunications industry was in its infancy. Only three million people, sharing 300,000 computers, had access to the internet. The first, brick-sized mobile phones stored a handful of numbers: they might have enabled an hour’s conversation, but offered neither colour, motion or information. Mark Zuckerberg was six years old; Sergey Brin was still in high school; Tim Berners-Lee had just laid out his vision for a worldwide web.
Then at a networking conference named Interop, in San Jose, California, engineers John Romkey and Simon Hackett demonstrated a slice of the future: a Sunbeam toaster hooked up to the new-fangled internet. For all its unsightly tangle of wire, it had just one control that switched the power on and off – a year later the engineers would add a miniature crane to manoeuvre the bread into place.
Yet that humble toaster was, in a way, the shape of things to come, a forerunner of today’s Internet of Things (IoT), the web of connections that links and empowers everyday objects and transforms them into digital devices with a power far greater than the sum of their parts.
Over the decades, the world of information technology has evolved at a dizzying pace. From factory floor to city streets, from smart watches to thermostats, discrete systems used to access information are increasingly connecting objects, people, data and processes. Sensors broadcast from locations as disparate as a cow’s stomach or a set of traffic lights and provide vital information on everything from cattle health and nutrition to pollution and urban congestion.
Building the network
According to technology research experts Gartner, more than 8.4 billion connected “things” will be in use around the world in 2017: while three billion or so are at work in the globe’s increasingly networked factories, more than five billion are in the hands of consumers. We are in sight of the world that computer science pioneer Mark Weiser predicted in 1991, a zone where “the most profound technologies … disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it”. When it comes to computing, now you see it, now you don’t.
Yet the IoT has evolved less as a smooth curve and more as an awkward hop from stepping stone to submerged rock and onwards over murky waters.
“It’s a long, long story,” said Jeannette Chin of Britain’s Anglia Ruskin University, who created an early IoT system designed to care for houseplants. “A lot of different elements had to come together to produce the Internet of Things: technology, communications, applications.”
One central prerequisite for the IoT is miniaturisation. The guidance computers that put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon operated with about 64 kilobytes of memory and weighed in at about 32kg. An iPhone 7 Plus packs 256 gigabytes, or about four million times that capacity (plus exponentially faster speeds!), into under 200g.
Another criterion is infrastructure. Smartphones have transformed the way we interact with the world. Yet the internet blossomed in nations that invested in fast cabling, and burst into fruit with the development of 3G and 4G. More than a thousand satellites empower today’s Internet of Things: by 2023 satellite specialists NSR believe there will be almost six million machine-to-machine and IoT connections worldwide.
Challenges of miniaturisation
In fact, fast internet is so central to success in every IT field today that European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker wants every city and village in Europe to enjoy free, public wi-fi with a minimum 100 Mbps download speed, plus uninterrupted 5G on all major roads and railways, by 2025. Gigabit connectivity is required for socio-economic drivers from businesses to hospitals. It’s easy to see that the pioneering US$20,000 refrigerator LG released at the dawn of the millennium might have had a very different fate had there been smartphones and fast connections ready to exploit the data it transmitted.
Software has empowered further change. Developments in machine learning have enabled a growth in autonomous devices. And, while one factor that restricts the expansion of the Internet of Things is that many connected devices will only communicate with those from the same manufacturer, IP protocols mean that any number of devices can connect to the same central spine. Websites such as If This Then That (ifttt.com) enable even home users to link their own devices with rules of their choosing.
Some of the hardware challenges the IoT presents are similar to those faced in previous computing generations. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is the world’s biggest contract chip manufacturer. It’s TSMC’s A10 chip that powers the iPhone 7, squeezing 3.3 billion transistors into a space just 125 square millimeter, and operating at the kind of resolution that requires an electron microscope to fully appreciate. The protuberant fins on the chip are spaced just 45 nanometres apart – that’s under 0.06 per cent of the width of a human hair – and next-generation chips are tinier still.
Yet some challenges are brand new, and for nations such as Taiwan, which transformed itself from an impoverished rural economy into an industrial and technological powerhouse during the second half of the last century, the race is on.
While miniaturisation is as relevant as ever, the Internet of Things requires low-power solutions, since not all objects a user might want to be networked are connected to a source of electricity. “If I have a farm, I want to scatter sensors around my farm, to see whether my crops require water or my soil needs nutrients,” said Chin. “I won’t be able to charge those sensors. So the challenge will be to be able to prolong the life of those objects. How do we program them so they use less energy and less power?... Can they generate energy, harness energy from the environment, sustain themselves?”
Because, while all agree the Internet of Things is the shape of things to come, there is much less agreement on how those things to come will actually look. More than 15 years after the dot-com bubble burst and e-commerce sites became a worldwide laughing stock, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is jockeying for position as the world’s richest man. Who would bet against an IoT pioneer taking his place come 2037?
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