By Lloyd Marino
Most of us dream big. The six-figure job, the fancy new car, and 4-bedroom home in a ritzy suburb…we all have a vision of what we’d like our lives to look like. Yet, when people start yacking about “the next big Big Data thing”, they’re really talking “small potatoes”. It’s not because they lack imagination or vision. Rather, it’s observation that’s in short supply.
What do I mean by that?
Take the hullabaloo surrounding the Internet of Things, a scenario that takes humans out of the equation, permitting a scenario where data can be transferred over a network without person-to-person or person-to-computer interaction. It’s the rise of the machines (sans Schwarzenegger) where devices communicate instantaneously. Observers declare the IoT is going to make everything in our lives, from streetlights to concrete, “smart.”
But here’s what I mean when I say we’re focusing too much on the “small potatoes.” A big chunk of IoT chatter is about machine-to-machine communication. You know, the whole spiel about devices sitting down to the human version of virtual coffee or speed dating. But here’s the kicker: machines aren’t people. They’re instruments, tools, if you will, that are physically doing something. Lost in all “smart” machine chatter is the importance of sensors, which unlike a machine, scoop up, process and measure data. In Chicago this summer, a handful of Michigan Avenue light poles have been specially outfitted with curved metal fixtures that resemble ornate sculptures but are actually a network of data-collection sensors measuring air quality, light intensity, sound volume, heat, precipitation, and wind. They’ll also take informal pedestrian headcount by observing cell phone traffic. In Antarctica, scientists have outfitted the heads of a 1000 seals with sensors that collect information about global warming, ice cover and weather forecasting. In both instances, these sensors could help us better understand our world by observing its people and surroundings.
The Internet of Things, or IoT, comes into play by providing structure. It sits at the intersection of the connection between sensors and machines. In other words, the real significance of the Internet of Things is the gathering of data, like that being collected on Chicago’s mean streets, and then leveraging it. All the information picked up by the world’s millions sensors isn’t worth a hill of beans if there isn’t an infrastructure in place to analyze it in real time.
Consider this example. In 2007, a bridge collapsed in Minnesota, killing many people, the result of flimsy plates that couldn’t handle the bridge’s regular loads. Going forward we can build and rebuild bridges, we can use smart cement, which is actually cement equipped with sensors to monitor stresses, cracks, and warps. This intelligent cement actually tells us to fix problems before the wheels fall off the wagon. These technologies aren’t limited to the bridge’s structure, however.
The same high tech could be used to detect icy and/or other hazardous conditions and communicate this information via the Internet to your car. Once your car knows that danger lies ahead, it will instruct you to slow your roll and if you don’t, then the car will slow itself down. This is just one of the ways that sensor-to-machine and machine-to-machine communication work. Sensors on the bridge connect to devices in the car. We, in turn, translate the information into action, like slowing down so we don’t end up in a big old ditch.
See the pattern here? Imagine the endless number of possibilities when a smart car and a smart city grid start up a conversation? For one, we’d optimize traffic flow. Gone would be the dinosaur stoplights on fixed timers. We’ll have smart stoplights that can respond to changes that actually respond to traffic flow. Traffic, street and weather conditions will be communicated to drivers, rerouting them around areas that are congested, snowed-in, or tied up with construction.
Today, we have sensors monitoring and tracking all sorts of data. There are the aforementioned cloud-based apps translating the sensor data into useful intel and transmitting it to machines, enabling quick, real-time responses. That’s how we move from the bridges of Madison County to smart bridges, and jalopies to cars that think for themselves.
What’s the big payoff in all of this? What are the savings? What’s the growth potential? What industries will benefit from this technology?
This is what I mean when we’re too focused on small potatoes. This isn’t just about saving cash. It’s not about bridges; it’s not about cities and even about fur seals. This is a huge and fundamental paradigm shift. Listen up folks: when we start making stuff smart—stoplights and street lamps as an example—it’s going to be a major vehicle for creating new products and new services.
That’s why of all technology trends making waves right now, perhaps the biggest one is the Internet of Things; it’s the one that’s going to give us the most opportunity over the next five years to change the way we function in our world.