What You Need to Know About the Internet of Things

Internet of Things
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If you’ve encountered the term, “Internet of Things,” you may have found yourself scratching your head as to what it means. Or, you may have never heard the term at all. Either way, you’ve come to the right place. Here, we’ll catch you up on exactly what the Internet of Things is, and how it affects you.

What it Is

The term was coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, founder of the Auto-ID Center at MIT and--while the exact meaning of the term can be difficult to pin down precisely--put most simply, the Internet of Things is the quickly approaching scenario in which a wide range of physical objects that we encounter in everyday life will be connected to the internet, and will be able to communicate with other internet-connected devices. In this scenario, each object, or “thing” is assigned a unique identifier and is able to send and receive data over a network, in many cases without the necessity of commands from humans.

How it Works

In the Internet of Things, a “thing” can be nearly anything from a refrigerator or home thermostat, to automobiles or vending machines, to living things like livestock or even humans implanted with a biochip transponder. The common thread is that each “thing” is assigned an IP address, which is used as a unique identifier for that object. That unique identifier is combined with embedded technology used to monitor internal states or the external environment, and internet connectivity by which the information gathered can be transmitted and processed. The result is a network of “things” which are connected to one another via the internet, and which can both send and receive information in order to work efficiently together.

The History of the Internet of Things

Though the term itself wasn’t coined until 1999, the origins of the Internet of Things go all the way back to the early 1980s, when a group of programmers at Carnegie Mellon University wrote a program that allowed them to track whether the storage columns of a Coca-Cola machine in their building were empty or stocked. The programmers could then use their computers to check the status of the machine, and determine both whether it was stocked and how long it had been since a column had been empty (in order to ensure that they not only got a soda, but one that had been in the machine long enough to be cold.)

The Current State of the Internet of Things

Up to now, the Internet of Things has been most closely associated with machine-to-machine information transfer in the fields of manufacturing and utility provision. Oftentimes, these technologies are referred to as “smart” technologies. One of the most commonly used examples of these “smart” technologies is a “smart meter,” an internet-connected device that measures consumption of a given utility (water, electricity, gas) for a home or commercial building. While most traditional utility meters only record the total consumption of the utility, smart meters also record a variety of metadata that can allow us to see when--and to some extent how--those utilities are consumed. This data can then be analyzed and used by building administrators to make real time decisions about the use of these utilities based on their costs. More importantly, however, this information can be used by computers to automatically make adjustments to utility usage in order to remain within a previously designated daily, weekly, or monthly utility budget.

What it Means for You

Thanks to the expansion of the wireless internet infrastructure and the increase in address space generated by IPv6, nearly any device or object can be assigned an IP address and connected to the internet, opening up near-endless possibilities for the internet of things. Within the foreseeable future you may be able to monitor and adjust the state of your home--from climate control to window shades and entertainment systems--remotely from your phone, tablet, or any other internet-connected device.

More importantly, though, the ability of devices to connect with one another and exchange information without the necessity of human input can mean the drastic expansion of automated systems. For instance, manufacturing of a given product could be tethered to real-time sales, resulting in drastic reductions in waste and making shortages nearly non-existent.

As more and more of our lives revolve around the free flow of information enabled by the internet, the Internet of Things, relatively small now, continues to grow. It’s not unreasonable to think that within our lifetimes we could see the Internet of Things become an integral part of our everyday lives, affecting everything from the way that we consume utilities to the way we manage the health of our own bodies.

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