Internet of things: A window to our future

We are living through one of history’s swerves. Over the past decade billions of people have hooked themselves up to the Internet via the computer and more recently mobile devices.
This communication revolution is now extending to objects as well as people. Object-to-object communications has been long predicted, but has always seemed to be perched safely on the horizon. Now it is rushing into the present. The so-called Internet of things (IoT) is, after the modern computer (1946) and the Internet (1972), the world’s third wave of the ICT industry.

Although the concept of IoT was expressed in the form of ‘computers everywhere’ by Professor Ken Sakamura (University of Tokyo) in 1984 and ‘ubiquitous computing’ by Mark Weiser (Xerox PARC) in 1988, the phrase “Internet of things” was coined by Kevin Ashton (Procter & Gamble) in 1998 and developed by the Auto-ID Centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, from 2003.
Ashton then described the IoT as a standardized way for computers to understand the real world.

So far, our view of the Internet has been human-centric. It is quite likely that sooner or later the majority of items connected to the Internet will not be humans, but things. The IoT will primarily expand communication from the seven billion people around the world to the estimated 50-70 billion machines. Ericsson envisions a world of 50 billion connections within the current decade.
This means significant opportunities for the telecom industry to surpass population and develop new “subscribers”. Future historians will probably look back at 2010 as the year when Internet connected devices like digital picture frames, web-connected GPS devices and broadband TVs, came online in greater numbers than new human subscribers did. Electricity meters, dishwashers, refrigerators, home heating units and several other objects with tiny sensors are next
in line.

This advancement signifies a massive shift in human development, from an “electronic society” to a “ubiquitous society”, in which everything is connected and everything can be accessed anywhere. Supported by IPv6 and eventually the Future Internet Architecture, the IoT would have the potential of connecting the 100,000 billion things that are deemed to exist on Earth! Regarding the things – physical or virtual – created by humans, visionary authors like Bruce Sterling, Julian Bleecker, Adam Greenfield or Rob van Kranenburg point out, each with his own style but always in a similar way, to a conceptual change of the object as an artefact (a farmer’s tool), then a machine (a customer’s device), then a product (a customer’s purchase), then a gizmo (today’s end-user’s platform or interface), then a spime (tomorrow’s networked object that is constantly tracking its location, usage history, and environment), and finally, by year 2060, a biot (an object at the interface of cybernetics, biotechnology, and cognition – something which is both the object and us). Internet-aware objects become “social objects”, i.e. enablers for new forms of human interaction. Going even further, by acquiring an identity as well as
self-management, self-healing, and self-configuration capabilities, future interconnected and uniquely addressable objects will take the properties of subjects.

Our apprehension of the reality will be deeply affected by the metamorphosis of objects. Our relationship
to electronic devices has changed so radically in the last few years that designers are beginning to think about our attachments to smart devices such as smartphones and tablets. The idea seems weird: how can we love an electronic device made of glass, silicon and plastic?
Smart devices are becoming an extension of ourselves — not in the sense that an object says something about what it is (cybernetic dimension), which technology supports it (semantic dimension), whom we want to be by owning it (semiological dimension), but as an actual part of our conscious self (relational dimension). Computers, mobile phones, tablets and e-readers do something that no car, garment or toaster can do (at least so far): they tell us things we never knew, like the quickest way to reach our destination, where to get a discount or where our friends are right now. So it is not surprising that people feel lost or actually grieve when they lose a personal electronic device. As the frame of a smart device keeps getting smaller, the “window” gets larger and clearer.
Some experts predict that the IoT will help tackle two of the biggest problems facing mankind today: energy and health care. While buildings currently waste more energy than they use effectively, we will be able to cut this waste down to almost nothing.
While we make visits to our general practitioner twice a year, at most, we will be able, thanks to a few sensors discreetly attached to our body, to continuously monitor how our vital functions are doing. However, the IoT will also pervade our personal environments by affecting the everyday objects that surround us. Over the past two years, a number of consumer applications based on IoT technologies have successfully shown the way ahead.
Let’s mention some of them: Arduino, an open-source electronics prototyping platform with both a hardware and software component; Arrayent – the so-called “Cisco of small things” – which is basically middleware for companies willing to connect their products to smartphones and computers via the Internet; CeNSE (Central Nervous System for the Earth), a platform built by HP to create a worldwide network of sensors, which will provide a feedback loop for objects and people for measuring vibration, rotation, sound, air flow, light, temperature, pressure and much more; Nike+, a well-known example
of sensors in a non-computing device, which allows running shoes to track our run and send the data to our iPod or automatically tweet and post a status report on Facebook or Foursquare; Pachube, an open IoT platform that allows us to tag and share real time sensor data from objects, devices, buildings and environments, both physical and virtual.

And there is, the “youngest”

of the series, which was presented during the IoT Event at Maison des Metallos on 1 December 2010.
Some years ago people at dreamt to connect “rabbits” (this produced the “Nabaztag”). Now they want to connect everything – humans, machines, objects, environments, information, physical and virtual spaces all mix up, talk, intertwine, interact, enrich and empower each other in all sorts of ways. The result is called – an open platform for all those who want to imagine and test new devices, installations, scenarios, and applications for the IoT.

Europe is well placed to take advantage of IoT opportunities for the economy and society. But in order to reap the full benefits of such a technological disruption, it must get prepared
to tackle six key challenges. The first challenge is to mobilise a critical mass of research and innovation effort for the creation of new products, processes and services. The second challenge is to develop a new definition of privacy for a changed world.
The third challenge is to protect the different building blocks of the IoT, considering how these blocks will work together and what kind of interoperable security mechanisms must be created, and to assure a certain level of security during the cooperation among IoT multiple actors, especially human beings, machines, and objects. The fourth challenge is to develop an ethics of the Internet of things by promoting an important dialogue between computer scientists and the broader public and by bridging the digital divide between those with access to technology and those without. The next two challenges are particularly important for Europe.

Firstly, Europe must participate fully in the shrinking world. Indeed, we now live in a world where the products we buy are usually designed and manufactured in distant lands, our medical records and other personal information stored in “cloud computers” half a world away, and vital research carried out in educated corners of the poorest nations.
Will the IoT reinforce the top-down model exemplified by China or the more bottom-up approach of the
Western World? The betting would be on the latter, but the top-down approach may have significant advantages: in the establishment of the necessary standards to ensure that objects can talk to objects; in the construction of smart public infrastructure; and in the introduction of toll roads and other forms of metering. The recent Global Internet of Things Conference (November 2010 in Beijing, China) has shown that, at the very least, China and Singapore have had a very impressive start. Europe cannot remain passive in face of this challenge. Building on its Europe 2020 strategy, Europe must commit itself to excellence in research and education for all and develop a strategy that fulfils its socio-economic goals.

Secondly, Europe must use the IoT to assert its civilisational values, i.e. those like the primacy of law and good governance that determine the general ethos of its society and shape the attitudes and outlook of its people.
This is perhaps the most difficult challenge. It can be represented by a prophetic quote of C. Virgil Gheorghiu in The Twenty-Fifth Hour, a book published in 1949: A society which contains millions of millions of mechanical slaves and a mere [seven] thousand million humans – even if it happens to be the humans who govern it – will reveal the characteristics of its proletarian majority (…). We are learning the laws and the jargon of our slaves, so that we can give them orders. And so, gradually and imperceptibly, we are renouncing our human qualities and our own laws.
We are dehumanizing ourselves by adopting the way of life of our slaves (…). This slow process of dehumanization is at work under many different guises, making man renounce his emotions and reducing social relationships to something categorical, automatic, and precise, like the relationship between different parts of a machine (…).
The mechanical slaves will win their revolution. They will conquer their freedom and become mechanical citizens of our society (…). Man will be fettered by technocracy for a very long time to come – but he will not die in chains. Technological Civilization can create comforts, but it cannot create the Spirit. And without the Spirit there is no genius. A society without men of genius is doomed (…). The downfall of technocracy will be followed by a rebirth of human and spiritual values. This great light will probably come from the East, from Asia.

In a world where 7 billion humans will ‘cohabit’ with 70 billion connected machines and several thousand billion objects connected to a dynamic global network infrastructure with self-management, self-configuration and self-healing capabilities, what will be the place of human beings? It should be the pride of Europe to trigger and permanently nourish an international debate on the human, societal and ethical implications of the IoT, rather than simply bowing down before ‘interconnectedness’ as if it were the ultimate solution to all problems.

IoT challenges are daunting. But if decision-makers have the courage to respond to them with energy and commitment, if they also provide for the leadership that is so critical to garner trust from citizens, and if our society understands that, as Jacques Attali put it, creation is the only reasonable alternative to violence, then Europe can take pole position in the IoT ride. No doubt it’s going to be a bumpy ride. But it is not the time for Europe to consider hiding under the bedcovers. Europe has several assets: the IoT European Research Cluster (IERC) with, in particular, its IoT-A flagship project (IoT Architecture);
an expert group of 50 members from Industry, Academia, Government and Civil Society, managed by the European Commission; a strong competitive position of its industry to develop an infrastructure meeting a rich set of service parameters, supporting in particular real time interactions, with a high degree of availability, integrity and trust; and Council, the Thinktank for the Internet of things, a loose group of professionals which is coordinated from Europe but which invites designers, architects, artists, coders, thinkers, tinkerers, and intellectuals from all over the world to blend their talents, skills and interests towards capturing the opportunities of the IoT for mankind.

We shall not walk away from our future. We shall harness the power of the IoT to shape the future together.

Gèrald Santucci head of RFID unit at the European Commission

Published in the Digitalarti Mag #5.

Digitalarti Mag, the international digital art and innovation magazine.

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