So I was at a conference the other day where the speakers were constantly using the buzz phrase “The Internet of Things”. This is where pretty much everything will have a processor in it that’s connected to some kind of network. This can be at a macro level, like having a car that knows who is driving it, or at a micro level, like having a set of strain sensors that can tell when a bridge needs maintenance. I heard the phrase so often that I got irked, since I myself was not connected at that conference. The wireless LAN was so overloaded that neither my phone or laptop could get a signal!
However, it’s something that’s clearly on its way, since it follows the great progression of computing:
- 1950: One computer per country (UNIVAC, EDSAC)
- 1960: One computer per company (mainframes)
- 1970: One computer per office (minicomputers)
- 1980: One computer per desk (PCs)
- 1990: One computer per briefcase (laptops)
- 2000: One computer per pocket (cellphones)
- 2010: One computer per gadget (cameras, e-books, memory sticks, toys, etc)
- 2020: One computer per dust mote!
The constant decline in the size of transistors has meant a constant decline in the minimum size of processors. The older classes of machine don’t go away – there are still building-size computers like UNIVAC that still draw megawatts – but smaller and cheaper classes of machines become possible in decade after decade.
The latest generation of tiny machines has crept up on me unawares. I realized recently that I have 10 computer/radios either on me or close to me:
- a cellphone
- now with a Bluetooth headset link
- a FitBit wireless pedometer
- a keyless fob for my car
- a tollbooth transponder in the car (FastLane)
- a keyless fob for an office
- a wallet entry card for a different office
- yet another wallet card for yet another building
- an RFID chip in my passport
- an RFID card for the subway (a Charlie card)
How did this happen? I used to sit down in front of a computer, and now I’m decorated with them. Our stuff is surrounding us with signals. We move in a field of radio waves, invisibly interacting with machines around us.
Sound creepy? It was when DARPA researched this in the late 90s with the Smart Dust project. They wanted to know about every footstep on every path in a hostile area, the better to shoot them. It also was in “Minority Report”, where every wall was a billboard trying to personalize itself to encourage you to buy. That’s also available now, with cameras in displays that can classify faces by age, gender and ethnicity in order to target ads.
Yet look at the list above of things in my pockets – their purposes are so mundane. They’re mainly to eliminate a few seconds of fumbling for a key or card. The chips in them are so cheap that it’s worth having one to save those few seconds. Soon they’ll be cheap enough to put in light bulbs so they can turn themselves off when no one needs light. They’re already in toilets for people who forget to flush. They’re going into streetlights (E.g. Enlight), so they can dim between midnight and five AM and report when they fail, and they’re in garbage cans (E.g. BigBelly) so they can report when they need to be emptied.
It’ll be a more responsive world than our current environment of stolid, unmoving artifacts. Maybe it’ll be more like the pre-industrial world of plants and animals on the farm. Our stuff is getting more life-like, more like what we evolved to interact with. It’ll be nice when our stuff is simply less stupid!