Machines and objects to overtake humans on the Internet
Machines will overtake humans to become the biggest users of the Internet in a brave new world of electronic sensors, smart homes, and tags that track users’ movements and habits, the UN’s telecommunications agency predicted.
In a report entitled “Internet of Things”, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) outlined the next stage in the technological revolution where humans, electronic devices, inanimate objects and databases are linked in real time by a radically transformed Internet.
“It would seem that science fiction is slowly turning into science fact in an ‘Internet of Things’ based on ubiquitous network connectivity,” the report launched at a UN summit said. “Today, in the 2000s, we are heading into a new era of ubiquity, where the ‘users’ of the Internet will be counted in billions and where humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of traffic,” it added.
Currently there are about 875 million Internet users worldwide, a number that may simply double if humans remain the primary users of the future. But experts are counting on tens of billions of human and inanimate “users” in future decades.
They would be tied into an all pervasive network where there would be no need to power up a computer to connect — “anytime, anywhere, by anyone and anything”, the report said. “We are creating intelligence that brings objects slightly to life, and allows these networks to allow the objects to have conversations behind our backs,” said John Gage, chief researcher for Sun Microsystems.
Remote computer-controlled household appliances are already appearing, as well as prototype cars with collision-avoidance sensors. Mobile phones can be used as electronic train tickets while meat exports from Namibia or goods for US retail chain Wal-Mart carry electronic tags to allow them to be tracked.
The ITU’s vision goes further, highlighting refrigerators that independently communicate with grocery stores, washing machines that communicate with clothing, tags implanted underskin with medical equipment, and pens directly linked to the Internet.
Industrial products would also become increasingly “smart”, gaining autonomy and intelligence thanks to miniaturised but more powerful computing capacity.
New electronic sensors in networked devices can “collect data from the environment, generate context, they humanise technology by complementing and in some cases replacing human senses,” said report author Lara Srivastava.
US IT expert Nicholas Negroponte took the example of a front doorknob, which could identify who lives in the house, open the door when the householder returns with arms full of shopping or sign for a package in their absence. “This smart doorknob is so smart that it can let the dog out but won’t let six dogs back in,” Negroponte said.
“Phones should answer themselves, figure out whether it’s important, behave like a good English butler or highly trained secretary, and if it wants to connect you it then asks the nearest ‘thing’ to tell you discretely,” he added.
The trend is being fuelled by a small number of technological developments, including miniature radio frequency RFID electronic tags that allow immediate identification and tracking, new sensors that can even detect bacteria, smart devices and nanotechnology.
“In this way the virtual world would map the real world, given that everything in our physical environment would have its own identity (a passport of sorts) in virtual cyberspace,” the report forecast.
It laid out economic opportunities, a huge expansion of the IT industry and applications in a wide range of fields from health to entertainment. But it also warned of a number of challenges, including privacy and data protection issues, and a battle for common technical standards. Some of the applications envisaged for emerging RFID tags are to replace human ID documents, track consumer habits, or banknotes, without any intervention by the holder. afp