Internet of things: Pet Rock or Foundation Stone?

By Futurist Kit Worzel

Just about everyone is familiar with the Internet (if you aren’t, how are you reading this?), but the concept of the Internet of things throws people. The easy way of looking at it is giving objects the ability to communicate and interact with the Internet. A simple example of this is a GPS chip on your phone. If you lose your smartphone, you can search for it through the Internet. But there are many more, and more sophisticated, examples emerging.

One of the first examples of the Internet of things (or IoT) came from Carnegie Melon University in 1980. Some of the programmers there wired a Coke machine so they could check to make sure there were still drinks in stock before they walked over to it – a trivial hack that has led to big potential changes. From there we have progressed not only to wireless access, but also to two-way communication, and even control of things from a distance.

My favorite example is the smart pacemaker I expect to come out in the near future. This pacemaker will have connections to four different devices: The cardiac unit at the local hospital, an overhead GPS satellite, an ambulance dispatcher, and the next of kin of the wearer.

Here’s how the situation might fall out: We have George, a somewhat overweight man in his late 50’s sitting in a coffee shop, drinking a double espresso and reading the sports pages. George has a smart pacemaker due to his previous heart attack, and his tendency to ignore his doctor’s advice. He is grumbling over a poor outcome for his home team when his pacemaker notices his heart is operating outside of its normal range, and the pacemaker is unable to correct it. It tries to send a notification to George’s phone, but he disabled it because it kept beeping at him when he drank coffee the way he liked it (too strong, too much sugar).

The pacemaker notices that the first threshold has been crossed, and sends a message to the cardiac unit. The nurse-technician on duty receives the message, and checks the status of George’s heart. He notes that the pacemaker’s warning is correct, and uploads a protocol for the pacemaker to use. The pacemaker executes the protocol without noticeable effect, and George’s situation worsens. The nurse-technician realizes this is outside of his area of expertise, and sends an emergency text to a cardiologist, asking her to get involved. The doctor arrives at the terminal in three minutes.

As the protocol fails to correct George’s heart, his condition worsens. Suspecting heartburn from too much coffee, George rubs his chest and makes a note to avoid spicy food this afternoon, ignoring the other warning signs of a heart attack. The pacemaker notes that he has passed a second threshold, and initiates procedures for an incipient heart attack. First, it pings the GPS satellite, which returns a precise location. Second, it sends an alert to the ambulance dispatcher, notifying dispatch of George’s health condition and location. Third, it sends a text message to George’s wife (his next of kin), letting her know that he is having a heart attack, an ambulance is on the way, and he will be taken to the cardiac unit of a specific hospital.

As George’s pacemaker is doing all of this, the cardiologist arrives to check his status online. She notes that his pacemaker has identified that George is about to have a full-on heart attack, and has notified the ambulance, which is on the way. She assembles an emergency cardiac surgical team, sends a nurse to greet the EMTs and bring them to her OR, and goes to scrub up.

George’s condition has gotten bad enough that the customers and staff of the coffee shop have begun to notice. The barista has just picked up the phone to call 911 when the EMTs push a stretcher through the door. The barista looks at the EMTs, then at the phone, and then back as he wonders what was in the coffee he drank that morning, but luckily for George, the EMTs are ignoring this. They get George situated on the stretcher and wheel him into the back of the ambulance, and take off. The attending EMT has a display showing not only George’s vitals taken by his pacemaker, but also recommendations for emergency treatment, which she follows as her colleague quickly navigates to the hospital. A nurse holding a tablet computer, which is updating from the ambulance’s instruments, greets them at the door. The nurse checks that the numbers on the tablet are correct as he guides the EMTs and the stretcher with George to the cardiac OR, where the surgical team is assembled and ready to operate.

By the time George’s wife makes it to the hospital, the surgery is half-over, his vitals are stable, and the duty nurse that greets her is able to reassure her that George should be fine. George will, of course, face repercussions in the form of scolding from both his wife and his doctor, who put him on a diet and exercise plan, and upload a protocol to his pacemaker to monitor that he is sticking to it.

This is not in the distant future, but instead only a few years away at our current pace of technological change. Integrated smart technology will have thousands of applications, at the very least. Wire a refrigerator with pressure sensors and a camera, and give it a connection to a food database, and you’ll be able to text your fridge from the store and ask if you’re out of milk, and get a reply, not of yes or no, but of how much milk you have left. Throw your laundry in the machine when you get home after work, and set it to go off when cheap electricity hours start. Give your kids clothing with GPS tags in case you lose track of them. Have an app on your phone that monitors online sales on items you want, and compares them to sales in town. Set your phone’s GPS to interface with your home’s AC/heater, to turn it off when you are away, but turn it back on when you are headed home. Information is currency, and the Internet of things is about to become very rich.

It’s also information that can be put to good use. Your shirt will monitor body temperature, and can interface with the AC and heater as well, keeping you comfortable at home, but also monitoring to see if you start running a fever. Don’t just keep track of where your pets and children are, get notified if they leave a certain area, or go into one (virtual grounding, if you will). A television subroutine that will turn off if your heart rate drops below a certain threshold, to encourage exercise. A mapping program that keeps track of your fingertips for use on a virtual keyboard. And the games they come up with will be incredible. There are already games based on geo-caching, and GPS, but this will take it to a whole new level. Play laser-tag in a city with your phone’s camera. Successful pictures count as a tag. Have a VR rig that will treat signals from various IoT enabled devices as different denizens of a fantasy world, so you can experience Skyrim or Tolkein walking down the street. Go outside the city limits and have drone dogfights with your friends, or rent the drones and have the fights from your computer. Anything that can be integrated in any way will be, for medicine, entertainment, security, comfort and even hygene.

This is not a fad, or a flash in the pan. There are over 12 billion IoT devices currently out there, and that number is expected to more than triple in the next ten years. These devices already outnumber people, and that is not going to change anytime soon.

Aside from the amazing possibilities here, there are some downsides as well. Feature creep is the obvious one. It’s all well and good getting notifications that you are having too much coffee, and should cut back to avoid a heart attack, but getting text messages from your fridge telling you you’re out of milk when you’ve just thrown the carton away would be annoying. Or having multiple people getting messages from your smart washer, so one of you gets a text in a business meeting that it’s time to put the wash in the dryer. Or that you constantly get ads from the same brand of appliance you bought whenever you are within 50 meters of a store that carries them.

Security will also be an issue. There are already instances of people hacking pacemakers and insulin pumps, so having other life-saving appliances getting hacked is not out of the question. GPS clothing could not only be hacked so you couldn’t find them (why are my shoes in Ecuador? I thought I left them at the gym!), but also to track people, making life easier for stalkers. Electronic security has been a major issue for a number of years now, but the IoT is truly bringing this to the fore. Almost every electronic device we buy a few years from now will be wired somehow, letting us control every aspect of our lives and homes even from a distance, but also allowing others the same control if they are savvy enough and intrusive enough to take it.

New security protocols are being enacted, to hopefully prevent this illicit access. But security will be a different post. 

For now, enjoy the though of having your car turn on and warm up for you in the morning as you lace up your boots. A thought near and dear the hearts of many of our snow-bound readers, I’m sure.