Evolution of an Internet of Things

Evolution of an Internet of Things is a text by Ana Serrano and Tim Warner. It is part of the Blowup Reader The Era of Objects.

At every major stage in the evolution of IT there has been a distinct technology and associated ‘object of interest.’ For the mainframe computer it was the firm; for the PC it was the desktop, for the mobile phone it was/is the individual. We are currently at a stage where the potential of technologies directed at individuals has not yet been fully exploited (e.g., the form factor and functionality of a personal, portable device has not yet stabilized), yet we are heading rapidly into the next stage where the object of interest is a ‘thing’ – a car, a soup can, a bridge, a field, a human organ. Associating an intelligent, communicating device with a thing brings it into the ambit of any other computer network: corporate networks, cellular phone networks, the Internet, or even a self-organizing ad hoc network of other things (e.g., home entertainment devices, public entertainment space).

An obvious corollary of this observation is that the number of ‘objects of interest’ goes up dramatically as the object changes. There just aren’t that many corporations in the world, compared to homes and offices. So where some hundreds of thousands of mainframe computers were sold, hundreds of millions of PCs have been sold, and the number of mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc.) is in the billions. But there are trillions of ‘things.’

The object of interest drives the direction of innovation. Learning curve effects, encapsulated in various ‘laws’ like Moore’s Law, accelerate as the quantity of devices shipped grows by two or three orders of magnitude, and as the preferred technologies of the new object of interest both increase in performance and tumble in price. Two examples: web cams were a useful but not universal adjunct to the PC. When cameras became embedded in mobile phones they became cheap and universal, even in PCs. Touch screens were expensive toys, and rarely used in a PC, but are now cheap commodity items, because of the advent of smart phones. In the extreme case innovation affecting earlier objects of interest disappears. Can you think of any interesting developments in the mainframe computer, for example (other than it’s predictable disappearance into the cloud)? Is the PC an essentially boring device now, as a platform for innovation?

So as we move to the ‘thing’ as the driver for innovation, the focus of innovation will shift. Now, for the thing to embed in the Internet, directly or indirectly, we would expect the broad evolution of capability to look something like this: indirect connection through intermediate, possibly dead-end technologies, followed by direct connection, and, orthogonal to this, an evolution in capability, from identification, to location, to state awareness, and agency. These dimensions interact.



In the short run an object can be Internet-enabled indirectly if it can communicate with a device (like a smart-phone) that is already Internet-connected, so this is an easy quick developmental path.  In the longer run we need technologies that allow an object to participate in an ad hoc network bridged to the Internet.  The software issues here have been largely solved in the world of larger machines like PCs, so the evolution of directly networked objects depends on the evolution of suitable hardware–low power wireless communications. We might predict, then, that:

• an Internet of things will cause an explosion in demand for  tiny, cheap batteries, or power scavengers (i.e., allowing an informated object to live unwired, off the grid for a long time)

• because scalability becomes an essential characteristic of IT solutions, scalable self-organizing communication mechanisms such as mesh networks must emerge and mature to enable the required infrastructure. Advances in collaborative mechanisms that characterize the present technology environment, such as Web Services, P2P, collaborative filtering, the blogosphere, and cloud computing, will accelerate and morph into new forms adapted to the collaboration of things.


Evolutionary Capabilities

The most important thing to know about an object is who it is—it’s identity. That’s why one-and two-dimensional bar-codes are so useful. But often the code simply identifies the class of object (e.g., the common universal product code identifier) rather than the unique object. And identity is not a simple idea. Authenticated identity is different from a label. A chip-card or SIM chip reliably identifies the credit card or phone, in a way that a QR code or even an RFID tag cannot. Hence we expect an evolution in the capability of objects to identify themselves early in the development of an Internet of things. A second important thing to know about an object is where it is – it’s location. Again, this is a non-trivial concept.  A GPS chip-set can’t tell you where a phone, is if the phone is deep inside an office building. On the other hand, if the device that’s inspecting the object knows where it is, then the object can readily inherit this location.  The third characteristic of an object you might want to know is how it is – its state.  If it’s a bottle of beer, is it cold? If it’s a human heart, is it beating steadily? If it’s a bridge, is it falling down? Finally, intelligent objects will have a range of behaviours they will be able to enact, through interaction with other objects, command-control systems, and people. Even if this range of behaviours is limited an ensemble of intelligent objects can exhibit complex emergent (swarm) behaviours. It’s fun to speculate about what a world of ‘informated’ things would look like, which is why we have sci-fi writers, but more helpful to think about some of the broad dimensions of change it would encompass.


Emergent Properties

An Internet of Things will be different, creating a new reality with new, or enhanced properties. The first property is what we call granularity. A corollary of the extension of IT into more and more objects, coupled with increased bandwidth and processor speeds, results in an ability to deal with the world on a more granular basis. This sees its expression in such things as mass customization, small-area weather forecasting, the fragmentation of business processes, and computing on demand. Think of the progression from blogs to tweets as an earlier example of this phenomenon.  A second property is the effect of granularity on time – the ability to sense the environment more frequently, or detect and respond to events in real-time – in effect, time compression. A third property, alluded to above, is enhanced collaboration. The old Internet morphed from being a distribution platform (think WWW) to a collaboration platform (think Facebook). The introduction of things that must largely self-organize, free of human intervention (just because of the scale and impermanence of the implied networks) shifts the notion of collaboration further. There is very little goal-seekingbehaviour in the Internet, in the sense that agglomerations of people join together on the Internet to seek a common goal, but this will be an essential feature of why objects will interconnect in the Internet of Things. This provides a framework for thinking about how the Internet of things will evolve, for example thinking about what kinds of products and services would be possible and profitable in an an environment where we could sense and respond in an instant to the state change of an object.


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