A few months ago, I was hanging out at a cool-sounding conference in a gullible part of the country, tweeting to other attendees about how the session on “How Twitter Is Changing Your Life” was changing my life, when a thought occurred to me. I can effortlessly keep 24/7 tabs on every atomic-scale movement of my Facebook friends, but I still cannot go online to track down the things I really want to find—like my car keys, my iPod, and my long-missing Lord of the Rings embroidered-denim jacket.
It turns out I soon will be able to do exactly that, owing to the coming of something called the Internet of Things. Instead of connecting online with other people—who very likely are zombie spambots peddling pregnancy hormones as diet aids, or zombie humans insisting that the president of the United States is an alien—we will link up with the objects we
own and love. Compared with our current “Internet of Whatever,” this could be a real step up.
It certainly will be for me. I want all my possessions to be networked so I can get in touch with them via a website or my phone. Please, network my pants so I can go to my pants’ website and find out if they’re in my closet or at the cleaners, or if they need to be brought to the cleaners. Network my bike, my leaf rake, my beer, and everything else so I can get up-to-the-minute reports on their location and status.
Then enable all my networked items to communicate among themselves so that, for example, my clothes will self-color-coordinate, my favorite foods will self-meal-plan and self-create a shopping list, and my umbrella and sunglasses will stop getting the weather wrong. Plus, everything from my toaster oven to my running shoes will coordinate with my credit card to replace themselves when their “check engine” light comes on.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not even slightly ahead of my time. In fact, I’m struggling to catch up with scientists like Dominique Guinard, who has been researching the Internet of Things since 2002. That’s when he was working in Geneva for the information-technology company Sun Microsystems, now Oracle, helping to spec out what was envisioned as a global network that by now would be tracking everything manufactured by anybody. The idea was that every product coming off an assembly line, along with the crate it was shipped in, would be slapped with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. Such tags, costing just a few cents, carry a small, non-powered chip that, when hit by radio waves from a nearby “reader,” converts some of the radio energy into its own radio pulse in return. That reply identifies the tag to the reader and thus to the global-things network the reader is connected to.
Over time, Guinard envisioned, tags would be equipped with ever-tinier sensors that could measure just about anything—temperature, moisture, light, motion—and report back. Companies would know not only where their stuff was but whether it was moved, stolen, damaged, or sold to me at a 300 percent markup.
At least that was the plan. “Walmart and some other big chains adopted it, but the global network never took off,” Guinard says with a sigh. “It didn’t help that people started believing it was an evil technology that could disrupt pacemakers, cause cancer, and track you. This was according to people who were carrying cell phones with a signal 100 times more powerful and that really does track you.”
But being, as he puts it, “supermotivated to create a world where everything is networked,” Guinard persisted, doing research at Lancaster University in the U.K. in a lab that created a mug equipped with a wireless sensor capable of telling you when your tea was cool enough to drink, while alerting your colleagues that you were taking a tea break in case they wanted to join you. Back in Switzerland, he continued his magnificent obsession as a researcher at ETH Zürich, a highly regarded technical university, where he helped another information-technology giant, SAP, create a system that allows assembly-line machines to talk to each other about hiccups and slowdowns and fire off e-mail warnings of production delays.