The Mainstream Press Notices the Internet of Things
By Rick Nelson, December 19, 2011
The Internet as an electronics industry tool is getting some attention with the publication of the article "The Internet Gets Physical" in the Sunday New York Times. In the article, writer Steve Lohr explains to his readers, after touting online shopping, "But now—nothing personal mind you—the Internet is growing up and lifting its gaze to a higher world."
Lohr continues, "…the protean Internet technologies of computing and communications are rapidly spreading beyond the lucrative consumer bailiwick. Low-cost sensors, clever software and advancing computer firepower are opening the door to new uses in energy conservation, transportation, health care and food distribution."
I could take exception to Lohr's "growing up" claim—the Internet didn't begin as a shopping tool, and it's been serving measurement applications for years, thanks in part to standards like LXI and IEEE 1588. And Lohr does acknowledge that the concept of the "Internet of Things" or the "Industrial Internet" had been around for years.
So Lohr is not jumping on a sudden moment that is upon us, as he writes, but rather tagging on to an evolutionary trend, driven in part by the proliferation of low-power, low-cost, and Internet-enabled sensors. Nevertheless, he does cite interesting applications, including Nest Labs' digital thermostat and, from GE, a smart hospital room (which the company has been trying out for a year now) that reminds doctors and nurses to wash their hands.
In one interesting comment, IBM CEO Samuel J. Palmisano tells Lohr that IBM's industrial Internet program for addressing smart grids, traffic management, food distribution, water conservation, and health care originated in the company's labs, not marketing departments. “The timing was right because we had the technology,” Palmisano told Lohr.
Lohr also takes note of the UN's Global Pulse initiative to mine Internet real-time data to understand changes in human well-being.
A related article well worth reading is from Larry Smarr, founding director of Calit2. Also writing in the Times, he notes that the billions of processors embedded in our smart phones, cars, and appliances stream spatially aware data to the clouds of Google, Amazon, and others and wonders whether ongoing exponential increases in the processing power of the "planetary computer" will bring us to the world of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series in which "psychohistory" can be used to predict the future.
I'm skeptical about the possibilities for psychohistory, although the Global Pulse initiative seems to be aiming to go down that path. Whatever the case, the Industrial Internet of the Internet of Things or whatever you want to call it is of considerable interest to EE-Evaluation Engineering, and in early 2012 we will be covering sensors, mobile test apps, WiFi-enabled data acquisition, remote monitoring, cloud computing and other related topics. Stay tuned, and we invite your comments on your plans for or experiences with any of these technologies.