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The Internet of Things

Posted by Christina B. Farnsworth

Feb 27, 2014 12:25:25 PM

Science Friday on National Public Radio featured a fascinating discussion about building an open internet of things. And then this morning Michio Kaku talked about his new book, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind.

The Science Friday radio program featured Neil Gershenfeld who wrote an article for Foreign Affairs entitled “As Objects Go Online: The Promise (and Pitfalls) of the Internet of Things.”

“When embedded in everyday objects,” Gershenfeld writes, “these small computers can send and receive information via the Internet so that a coffeemaker can turn on when a person gets out of bed and turn off when a cup is loaded into a dishwasher, a stoplight can communicate with roads to route cars around traffic, a building can operate more efficiently by knowing where people are and what they’re doing, and even the health of the whole planet can be monitored in real time by aggregating the data from all such devices.” Professor Gershenfeld is the director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Center for Bits and Atoms.

Also featured was Google’s Scott Jenson, interaction designer in Google’s product strategy department.

One of the concerns is that “Your KitchenAid may not speak SubZero,” said show host Ira Flatow

Really exciting but not obvious is energy efficiency or “energy inefficiency” as Gershenfeld calls it. “Buildings account for three-quarters of all electricity use in the United States, and of that, about one-third is wasted. Lights stay on when there is natural light available, and air is cooled even when the weather outside is more comfortable or a room is unoccupied. Sometimes fans move air in the wrong direction or heating and cooling systems are operated simultaneously. This enormous amount of waste persists because the behavior of thermostats and light bulbs are set when buildings are constructed; the wiring is fixed and the controllers are inaccessible. Only when the infrastructure itself becomes intelligent, with networked sensors and actuators, can the efficiency of a building be improved over the course of its lifetime. The Internet of Things could save that wasted energy but only if there is a common language.”

Jenson and Gershenfeld agree that the smallest devices need to be connected directly to the Internet and share an open source of common computer language. We need to have open source and open standards, Gershenfeld emphasized.

Jenson’s blog post, “A Stormy Side of Cranky Clouds” talked about how everyone has their own cloud and clouds do not communicate. He thinks the clouds do need to communicate: “The single biggest fallacy I want to blow up is this utopian idea that there is this single thing called ‘The Cloud.’ Each company today reinvents their own cloud. The Cloud as a concept is dead and has been for years: We are living within a stormy sky of cranky clouds, all trying to pretend the others don’t exist.”

“The Internet of Things succeeds to the extent that it is invisible,” Gershenfeld writes. “A refrigerator could communicate with a grocery store to reorder food, with a bathroom scale to monitor a diet, with a power utility to lower electricity consumption during peak demand, and with its manufacturer when maintenance is needed. Switches and lights in a house could adapt to how spaces are used and to the time of day. Thermostats with access to calendars, beds, and cars could plan heating and cooling based on the location of the house’s occupants. Utilities today provide power and plumbing; these new services would provide safety, comfort, and convenience.”

Dr. Kaku is a theoretical physicist and a “co-founder of string field theory,” who seeks to resume “Einstein’s quest to unite the four fundamental forces of nature into a single grand unified theory of everything.” In his new book, he writes about the brain research that ties chips in the brain to actions. He writes that we will eventually have “a Brain Net to replace the Internet.” He cites Stephen Hawkings who already use a chip in his glasses to direct his brain to type, since ALS has robbed the scientist of all ability to move his body. Dr. Kaku speculates that we will eventually be able to “decode the thinking of our brain and put it to work.” He anticipates that we will be able to control computerized things within our homes, simply by thinking a thought, such as, “I want to turn on that light.”

And with the advent of computerized technologies in objects and 3D printers, the ultimate Internet of Things may be just to email a file that prints out as an object. Think what that could mean to ordering merchandise online and even finding parts to repair broken things. Or maybe just wishing for something to happen and making it so.

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