Automated communication: the internet of things

According to Cisco Systems – one of the world’s leading suppliers of networks – as far back as 2008, there were more things (e.g. smartphones and sensors) on the internet than there were people. By 2020, there will be an expected 50 billion ‘things’ on the net. One’s first reaction might be that “it’s Cisco saying that, and it’s their business area, so we should take it with a grain of salt.” However, that’s a lot. One’s next reaction, somewhat defensively, might be that, after all it’s not a question of quantity, but quality, and there we human beings are still ahead. As yet.

The perspective then is that in parallel with human communication – face to face, analogue or digital – we will have a growing non-human sphere of communication, represented by the internet of things, in which things communicate with people. Cisco gives as an example a farmer with sensors in each cow in order to keep him up to date about the cows’ health. And what you can do with cows, you can do with people. Who wouldn’t like to be updated about the health of their children or spouse? And be updated on what he or she’s doing at the moment? At a nursing home in California, they experiment with equipping the demented with computer chips, so they can walk around freely and then be herded home for lunch. And just think if the individual parts of IKEA furniture had chips that told you which part you should start with – and if the next part then communicated “my turn now!” That would save a lot of marriages.

The next step is that things communicate with other things. People-free communication. Some years ago, your columnist spent a day with some folks whose job involved manufacturing cement factories. Even then they dreamed about replacing wiring with chips that coordinated the factory’s various functions via the internet. In time, there probably won’t be many things that the internet can’t coordinate, monitor and document. The Net knows best.

And that’s grand. For, as with all automation, it is the simple and boring stuff that gets automated first. Mankind and its communication is liberated to communicate about the big questions, such as the meaning of life, emotions, love and such. Those are not the internet’s strong points.

On the other hand, Murphy’s Law will also be true in the future. If something can go wrong, it will. Systems break down. That’s annoying if it is your computer, but life-threatening if it is your cardiac monitor. Hospitals have reserve power generators. Should we all have our own, personal reserve power generator? The IT version of Murphy might be: If something can be hacked, it will be. This could be anything from harmless pranks to something far more dangerous. The classic detective novel challenge about murder in a locked room, with only the murder victim in it, suddenly becomes feasible.

In the longer term, we may have the internet of things as an autonomous system. Self-regulated and self-reproducing. One could argue that there’s nothing new for mankind in that. Before we gained control over nature, we had to live with an autonomous system. The internet of things is addictive. Your columnist has met young people who are unable to read a map. Unless they get GPS coordinates to plug into a device that can lead them to the right spot, they are lost. The internet of things becomes the system that cares for us, watches over us and tells us what we should do. Again, we could ask ourselves if there is anything new in that. In the days of yore, people said that everything rests in the hands of the Lord. In the future, they rest in the internet of things.

Originally published in SCENARIO