The Internet of Things

The computer revolution has changed all our lives.  First by making calculations that would have taken a team of humans weeks to accomplish into things that can be done in a few minutes.  That calculating power shrunk down from something that, at first, only the federal government could afford, to something that could rest comfortably on the desks of much of the middle class.  Then it changed again when the focus of computers shifted away from calculation to communication.  This is the world of the smartphone.  Now instead of celebrating new and different ways of calculating things, we celebrate new and different ways of communicating.  Many very smart people are working very hard on the next revolution of computing power, and that is the Internet of Things.

The previous two revolutions are pretty easy to understand.  The first is well understood , even codified into Moore’s law, the unofficial law of computing power that stated, roughly speaking, that the power of computers roughly doubled roughly every two years.  Roughly.  And communications power isn’t codified quite so well, but it’s easy to understand the phone in your pocket right now, and how it’s changed in the last decade.  The next revolution is harder to define.  Basically, it means the things we use everyday, and the things that support our world that we never think about, will be embedded with all sorts of sensors and processors so that they can behave intelligently and without our input, or at least, give us far more options for interacting with them.  I understand why the IoT is such a focus for engineers right now.  The calculating and communicating revolutions have gone as far as they easily can.  They’ll continue to grow and change, of course, but the wild world feeling of anything being possible is fading.  Now growth is slower and more measured.  We know what our phones can do.  We’re just looking at ways of doing them better.  Our light bulbs and thermostats, though, who knows what crazy things they’ll be doing?

It will help here to explore a few examples.  I mentioned light bulbs, because they’re a common one.  Light bulbs are replaced every few years, so there are a lot of opportunities for sales.  They have a constant source of power, and we use them all the time.  Connecting them to the IoT means they can do things like turn themselves on just as you open your door.  They can change the color of light they produce to match what you’re doing.  They can turn themselves off when appropriate.  Neat, right?  Thermostats have even more benefits.  You can run more efficiently by leaving your heating and cooling off till just a few minutes before you get home, and you don’t need to rely on a simple timer.  That will save energy, money, and will probably do the planet a few favors as well.  Cars are another big example.  It’s hard to go more than a few days without hearing some story, good or bad, about self-driving cars.  It seems the Internet of Things will be inextricably linked to the modern future.  How will it effect us?

The short answer is that it’s massively overhyped.  The longer answer is that it’s massively overhyped, and it will have many, many unintended consequences.  Over the next few days I hope to explore a few of them.

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