The old Internet ran on and was accessed by personal computers. You logged onto the Internet via your friendly neighborhood Internet service provider, checked your email, and visited those websites you liked to visit. It was very much a you-connected-to-them sort of thing.
That's changed a little over the past few years, due to the emergence of the mobile web. Now, instead of connecting to the Internet via your computer, you connect via your smartphone or other mobile device. You still do pretty much the same things (checking email, tweeting, surfing the web), but now you do them from wherever you might happen to be.
But even that is changing. The Internet of tomorrow won't be so device dependent, or even people dependent. Instead of connecting people to online information (or to other people online), we will be connecting things – smart devices, smart homes, smart offices, even smart cities. This is what some call the Internet of Everything (IoE), and it will have a huge impact on the way we live our lives.
Welcome to the Internet of Everything
The Internet of Everything – sometimes called the Internet of Things – revolves around a new generation of smart devices connected together in an autonomous fashion. That is, any given device will be able to connect, via the Internet, to any other given device and share data and information between them. What happens with all this connectivity and large-scale data sharing is somewhat beyond the scope of most of our imaginations. All we know is that this "smart connectivity" will enable each device – and the people using them – to do more things, more intelligently, and more quickly than ever before.
The IoE works under the assumption that just about any natural or man-made object can be provided with the ability to connect to the Internet, typically via WiFi, and then be assigned its own unique IP address. From there, it's a simple matter of determining just how a given device can benefit from being connected to the Internet.
These connected devices are typically called "smart" devices. Some of these smart devices are already here, in the form of smart phones, smart TVs, and (to some degree) smart cars. Others, such as smart appliances and smart aircraft (drones) are in development. But just about everything can be a smart thing on the Internet, including:
- Smart TVs
- Smart appliances
- Smart clothing (wearable tech)
- Smart cars
- Smart aircraft (drones)
- Smart homes
- Smart businesses
- Smart cities
As you might suspect, the Internet of Everything promises to be a really big deal – much, much bigger than today's more limited Internet. Experts believe that there will be between 26 to 30 billion devices wirelessly connected to the IoE by 2020. Equipping almost every object in the world with minuscule identifying devices or machine-readable identifiers – and then enabling them to "talk" to each other and perform essential tasks – has the potential to dramatically transform daily life, for both average consumers and the businesses that serve them.
Perhaps the best way to think of what's coming is to compare it to the electrification of America (and the world) in the early 20th century. With the Internet of Everything, we will be connecting virtually every single thing in the world to every other thing in the world – and letting them all "talk" to one another. That's a big project that will change the world as we know it.
Inside the Smart Home
With the Internet of Everything, just about any device in your home can become a "smart" device. Some of this smart connectivity exists today; other applications are only in the conceptual stage. Still, it's easy enough to imagine the following smart devices in the home of tomorrow
For example, the television set of tomorrow won't be just for TV anymore. Instead of being connected to an over-the-air antenna or cable system, it will get most of its programming over the Internet, from Netflix, Hulu, and similar services. The smart TV of the future will even learn what you like to watch and automatically record those programs for you to watch at your own convenience – or even on another connected device. Plus, it'll have a built-in camera so you can Skype and video conference from the comfort of your own living room – as well as control it all with a few gestures of your hand.
Then there's the lowly thermostat, which won't be so lowly anymore. Building on the capabilities of today's hot Nest Learning Thermostat, the smart thermostat of tomorrow will not only learn and remember your heating and cooling preferences, but will also report your usage data (over the Internet, of course) to your local electric or gas company. This will help those companies better manage their energy delivery loads and also let you earn a discount by funneling the majority of your energy usage to non-peak periods.
Moving into the kitchen, expect to find all manner of smart appliances. For example, you'll probably have a smart refrigerator with sensors that indicate when certain foods need to be restocked or go past their expiration date. The refrigerator can then compile and text or email you a daily or weekly shopping list, based on what you've used and what you need.
As to cooking your food, you'll be able to remotely operate and program your connected oven, by using your smartphone to change cooking time, adjust cooking temperature, and check the status of your meal. Same thing with smart coffee makers, crockpots, and the like.
Of course, the smart home of the future will have all of its electronics connected to each other – and to you, via your smartphone or tablet. You'll be able to use your mobile device to lock or unlock the doors, turn on the alarm system, turn off the lights, turn up the heat, and more. You'll even have monitors woven into the fabric of your smart furniture that can notify you when it's time to clean the couch – or get it reupholstered.
Creating the Connected Individual
The Internet of Everything isn't just for things. It's easy to imagine personalized implants that connect people to the Internet, for various purposes.
Some of this is already happening. Several biotech companies today sell heart implants that monitor a person's heart rate and notify medical personal (and the user himself) when something goes awry – or just record and transmit real-time data for a doctor's analysis. It sounds very science fictiony, but it's technology that currently exists and is in use.
You can also imagine how you might implant smart microchips, in conjunction with GPS technology, to keep track of wayward pets – or children. (These devices exist today for pets – but not yet for kids.) For that matter, similar implants could let you (or your doctor) know when your child has a cold or a fever, or hasn't taken his medicine. One might not like the privacy implications of this technology, but it could provide another layer of control for already over-controlling parents.
(By the way, farmers can equip their farm animals with similar biochip transponders, so that they know if, when, and where the animal has gone missing. This technology also enables farmers to easily identify each individual animal and pull up its medical records as needed.)
Of course, you don't have to implant a microchip to connect a person to the IoE. Smart clothing is probably a better bet, at least in the immediate future. Also called wearable technology, we're talking about clothing and accessories that have built-in chips and connectivity to monitor and track various activities.
For example, consider a set of earrings with built-in Bluetooth tech that double as a cordless phone headset or audio headphones. Or athletic shoes that monitor your performance or tracks miles walked. Or a jacket that notifies you when it's about to rain or even fluffs up when it starts to get cold outside.
Then there's Google Glass, a very rough prototype of the sort of wearable connectivity that we're likely to see in the future. Glass is a set of connected eyeglasses, complete with built-in monitors, video camera, and microphone to keep you connected wherever you are – and record everything you see and hear. It's like having your own combination personal Internet and recording studio with you all the time, for whatever uses you can imagine.
Of course, in today's society an individual is only as cool as his car. That means we can expect smart automobiles with built-in sensors to alert the driver when tire pressure is low, fluids need to be changed, or some other component is out of whack – or just let you know how fuel efficient your driving is. There's also all sorts of connected entertainment possibilities, as well – no reason not to listen to Spotify or Pandora (or even your own personal digital audio collection, served via the cloud) while you're on the road. And it's probably only a matter of time until we get a fully self-driving car, using the Internet of Everything to program and drive the optimal route – while keeping in account real-time traffic and weather conditions. (Hey, Google's working on it, so it must be a real thing, right?)
Connecting the Smart Community
Move beyond the smart home and you run smack dab into the smart community – the smart city, smart state, and smart country of the future. Take all the data collected from all the connected smart homes and devices in a given community, and just imagine what you can do.
We're talking smarter operation of traffic signals, based on real-time commuter and weather data. Smarter conservation, with each home's energy and water usage controlled by the city's central server. Faster response by police and fire departments, with emergency data transmitted before individuals can manually make 911 calls. And smarter infrastructure management, with embedded sensors reporting in when potholes develop, roads get icy, or the community pool needs cleaning.
Businesses will also use the Internet of Everything to better manage their own physical infrastructure. Think smarter warehouses, office buildings, and transportation fleets, for starters – as well as smarter management of non-office employees.
Then there's the issue of drones. A drone aircraft becomes really useful when it's operation is completely automatic, via the ubiquitous IoE connection. Businesses will use drones to automatically deliver customers' orders directly to their front doors – whether it's a package from Amazon.com or a pizza from Dominos. And cities will use drones to view live traffic patterns as well as monitor neighborhoods for criminal activity. Expect to see a lot of eyes in the skies when the IoE really takes flight.
Do You Really Want an Internet of Everything?
So the Internet of Everything will make life easier for you by automating many of today's manual tasks – and even tasks we haven't thought about yet. But as exciting as the opportunities for intelligent, automatic interaction may be, there are also risks involved – the chief of which is privacy. When every device you use can communicate with every other device out there – and with the companies that sell and monitor these devices – how private is your private life? Do the benefits of this intelligent connectivity outweigh the privacy risks? And what does a connected world do when the connections suddenly go down?
There are no easy answers to these questions, although the public of late has shown a somewhat disturbing preference for convenience over privacy. To some degree, there's no turning back the technology genie after it's been let out of the bottle, so it's likely that we'll see a lot of this smart connectivity proceed apace, even if some groups raise the privacy issue. It's just possible that the benefits offered by the Internet of Everything outweigh the risks – especially when it means less work for most people.