The Internet could soon set the world buzzing with a network of sensors designed to track our environment as well as our personal health, consumption of goods, and living patterns.
We are used to standalone sensors such as gas and electric meters and smoke detectors in our homes. For decades, we have used sensors in closed systems like our cars to track speed and control temperature.
What is changing is that sensors are becoming cheaper, smaller, and more energy-efficient. As a result, their use is growing exponentially. Companies, governments, and individuals are embedding them everywhere. For example: Motion detectors now switch on lights, turn on water, and dispense towels.
And these sensors are talking. Many are still not directly connected to the Internet, but that is changing fast. With the spread of IPv6, many of these sensors will have their own Internet addresses and in the future will be talking to each other with implications for online “noise” and traffic.
Sensor technology itself is evolving rapidly, and sensors are increasingly generating massive amounts of data on us and our world. Advertisers are using data mining for predicting your behaviors and buying patterns. A sensor necklace can now record the exact time and date when an elderly adult swallows specially designed pills; it also can send the data to the doctor, or remind the patient if they forget the medication. Soon, products in your refrigerator will report their freshness and amount, and reorder themselves when needed. The Transportation Security Administration plans further use of technology to detect anomalies in passenger behavior patterns to find potential terrorists.
The Air Force is installing mobile, battery-powered tags that use GPS and a WiFi system to monitor the location and status of aging aircraft and parts in a 110 million-square-foot outdoor boneyard in Arizona. Auburn University engineers are-creating self-organizing networks for DARPA that can be deployed incrementally and assemble themselves. Berkeley scientists are creating “smart dust” with autonomous sensing and communication.
As this network of sensors becomes more ubiquitous and sophisticated, it will be used to record an increasingly detailed set of patterns for each of us. Together the patterns will give researchers insights into the behaviors of complex, open systems.
Integrating the vast data from proliferating sensors, making sense of complex changes, and making better decisions with this new visibility offers important opportunities to companies and governments. Indeed, more wealth and benefit will come from integrating the data than from the sensors themselves.
What do ubiquitous sensors portend? Many imagine that sensors will enable a telemedicine system customized for you. Your health care professionals will know how you are doing from afar and be able to call on experts when your readings are out of tolerance. Many imagine that transportation and shipping systems will be even more transparent, with flows adjusted based on real-time patterns. Expect advertising systems with ads tailored to your previous patterns and offered to your mobile device as you approach a retail provider.
Yes, living in an instrumented world will force us to trade some anonymity for transparency. At the same time, the vast proliferation of sensors and their networks promise organizations and individuals better choices and efficiencies.
— Joseph A. (Jae) Engelbrecht, Jr. is a principal with Toffler Associates