What Is the Internet of Things?

In 'The Brave Little Toaster,' household appliances and other electronics have the ability to speak and move — not so far-fetched now as it may have seemed in 1980, when the book it is based on was published. . Wikimedia Commons

Don’t look now, but is that toaster talking to the Crock-Pot? If you’re prone to anthropomorphizing inanimate objects, prepare to have a field day if the Internet of Things (IoT) does indeed become a thing. And all indications suggest that it will; in fact, it's already started.

While up to now the Internet has lived amongst our computing devices, a confluence of high-tech developments is paving the way for a departure from our normal connections to a new kind of Internet: a networked system of our physical stuff.

As broadband Internet has become more accessible and affordable, more devices are coming equipped with Wi-Fi intelligence; eventually, it is projected that all things that can be turned on or off will be able to “talk” to each other. Homes will have a central nervous system of sorts, where motion sensors can instruct the thermostat to warm or cool, where the alarm clock can tell the coffee maker to get busy, or where a jogging app on a smartphone can alert the hot tub that the achy runner is near.

As Forbes puts it, “the new rule for the future is going to be, ‘anything that can be connected, will be connected.’”

Technologists have gone back and forth on naming this new phenomenon. Although Internet of Things seems to be nosing out the competition, it has also been called the Internet of Everything and the Industrial Internet. Wired.com refers to it as the Programmable World, since most of the devices aren’t actually on the Internet per se, but are instead communicating thought basic wireless protocols. Others are simply calling it the Sensor Revolution, a somehow less daunting description. (As in, your home will be equipped with more sensors, but it will not become an independent cyber organism that will eventually outsmart you.)

But it will be everywhere

As would be expected, the IoT will not be restricted just to our homes. On the contrary, forecasters see entire consumer, business-to-business, and government industries utilizing the technology. Factories will become even more automated; hospitals will run more smoothly. It is being envisioned in areas from transportation networks to waste management, and may be a way to help improve efficiency in a variety of business and infrastructure capacities.

But while having the calendar tell the pool heater to begin warming when a BBQ is approaching may mean one less worry for the harried hostess, the era of a completely networked world is sure to have its kinks. Data security will be a tremendous challenge, and issues of data privacy and sharing will clearly become a hot topic. Not to mention just how all of the massive amounts of new data will be tracked and stored.

These questions and more will require major consideration, and quickly, because this Things thing is already starting. Some industries have begun streamlining manufacturing processes with networked components and the large-scale adoption of the concept is filtering into a diverse number of areas. At home, many of us already have computers that talk to smartphones that talk to televisions and stereos and more. The analyst firm Gartner says that by 2020 there will be over 26 billion connected devices. And by some estimates, the number of connected devices will be as high as 100 billion by 2020. Wired.com pushes the numbers even further, citing projections of 1 trillion networked devices worldwide in the consumer and industrial sectors by the year 2025.

At this point it’s hard to fully comprehend what a world where everything is smart and connected will be like. We’ve been slowly ramping up for it and may not even notice it has happened, until some point in a few decades when we find ourselves reminiscing about the old days when appliances actually had user-controlled power panels and dials. “Pshaw,” we’ll say, “turning things on and off was so early millennium.”

Until then, enjoy those power switches and temperature controls while you still have them.