The “internet of things” was first coined in the late 1990’s as a way to describe a future where nearly everything in the world would become affixed with an RFID tag and would be subsequently tracked. My how the vision has grown! Now, when people talk about the “internet of things”, they are almost invariably describing the proliferation of internet-connected devices and sensors interconnected with what we currently know as the internet. It has been projected that by 2020, the number of connected devices with be 50 billion. This would outstrip the estimated 2020 human population 7 times over.
What exactly are all of these internet-connected devices? Some are old familiar standbys like desktop and laptop computers. In more recent years, mobile devices like cell phones, tablets, music players, and even e-readers are now enabled with some sort of radio that connects them to the internet. Think of how many sensors are packed into the average cell phone (GPS, accelerometer, gyroscopes, digital compasses, CMOS imager, sound recorders, light sensors, and moisture sensors…hope you don’t find out about that one the hard way!) All of those sensors can potentially be points of collected data and stored in the cloud. They can tell a much richer story about you, your habits, and interactions than your laptop or desktop computers ever could. With the advent of low-powerBluetooth and the dropping of the cost of the chips that drive them means that lots of things now have sensors that never used to have them. Even the ubiquitous wristwatch is being brought into this age. More and more, the signals from all these sensors will be collected, analyzed, and sometimes acted upon. Chances are, if you have bought a car within the last year, it has at least one wireless radio someplace. If not, want a LoJack or OnStar?
There is still a huge reservoir of data from “dumb devices” that are equipped with sensors but no connectivity. Roads, electric meters, cars, vending machines, etc. all have sensors and are often collected onto some kind of memory storage device. In some cases there are private repositories of these kinds of measurements languishing in the databases of companies and governments who don’t know what to do with them. Liberating the data from these sensors hooked to dumb device needs to be an objective for the world in the coming years. Potential revenue lies in the data reduction and mining of all of this data for the purpose of creating better business, marketing, and legislative decisions.
It is not just your cell phone or car that will be loaded up with sensors, it’s actually going to be you! There is a large movement in the health and fitness areas to include sensors that you wear. Some have coined facets of this movement as “the Quantified Self.” Fitbit and Nike+ are great examples of early entrants to the space. Fitness monitors are now becoming more akin to life support monitors used in the early space program. There is currently a sea change within the diagnostics and health management industries as it relates to wireless sensors. There are a large number of wireless sensors that can measure everything from brain waves, to EKG, to blood fluid levels, to oxygen saturation, to cuff-less blood pressure, to your baby’s intrauterine movements. The West Wireless Health Institute was established just a few years ago in the shadow of UCSD, Scripps, Qualcomm and San Diego Biotech to develop wireless sensors to reduce the cost of medical care. Dr. Eric Topol, who is on the board of the WWHI, has written a book called “The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care” . Topol has been a vocal advocate for the adoption of wireless health as a means for the masses to take better care of themselves and not rely so much on doctors. There is already a big business around collecting that data and trying to help patients to live healthier lives and to prevent costly visits to the doctor’s office or even costlier visits to the Emergency Department.
Math is now more important to the future than it has ever been. Increasingly, there will be need for people trained in advanced mathematics who can reduce all of this data and make actionable sense of it. New methods of analysis and statistical treatments will need to be created to find those parameters that make a difference by themselves and/or when combined together. We will need increasing numbers of people who can model and simulate data so that we can start to predict the behaviors of the systems that the sensors read measurements from. What should you study in college if you are unsure, MATHEMATICS! When I was growing up, my parents told me to finish my dinner. Now we should be telling our kids, “finish your math homework…then go do the Google-a-Day puzzle!” For a time, companies were snatching up programmers that could write good apps. Watch as the trend migrates to companies seeking to buy up the best analysts and statisticians. Our educational institutions need to better prepare for this trend.
I think that ultimately the idea of the “internet of things” will go away and it will just be the internet again. We shall know have arrived when we stop talking about the “internet of things” and just expect that newly designed things will be built this way. Anything less will be considered passé and antiquated. I eagerly await my Bluetooth-enabled toothbrush…but so does my dentist!