Illustration redesigned by Devin Thorpe
“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is, all things being particles of a real and rhythmic whole.” -Nikola Tesla, 1926
Legend has it that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science housed the most popular Coca-Cola machine in the greater Pittsburgh area. It was located in the main terminal room, on the building’s third floor. For students and professors working on code all day and night, the sugar and caffeine this vending machine provided became an indispensable (pun intended) part of the building’s ecosystem.
Then, in the late ‘70s as the school expanded, a problem arose. More and more people found themselves further and further from the main terminal room. Professors and students would often make the long trek only to find the machine out of stock or, somehow worse, pay to receive a warm bottle that had just been restocked.
At some point, four among the ranks of the nerdy, under-caffeinated genii who had decided enough was enough (and possibly with a little too much free time on their hands) used their collective brainpower to solve this problem. They wouldn’t have realized it at the time, but in doing so, they were helping birth an entirely new way of building the world around us.
Introduction to IoT
What pops into your mind when you picture “the internet”? Maybe it’s Google or running over the browser on your phone or laptop, perhaps video chatting with long distance relatives in real time. But whether it’s social media, news, forums, entertainment, online shopping–you actively engage the web in consistent, arguably predictable, ways on a day-to-day basis. In reality, our repetitious uses are just the surface and the larger internet is much deeper and more multifaceted.
The internet of things (or IoT, for short) is a massive infrastructure of devices–everything from the phone in your pocket, to the alarm clock on your nightstand, to entire cities’-worth of transportation systems–all interconnected and sharing data. Today, nearly six times as many things connect to the internet as people. In the coming decades, that number is expected to skyrocket. Our world is now verifiably packed with edge devices that take in sensory data, send it over the cloud, and interact with other devices in order to maximize collective utility. Generally called “systems within systems”, it’s almost impossible to wrap your head around the sheer scale of it all.
Bill Joy is an engineer and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, a company which, among other things, gave the world Java. To give some sort of tangible sense of what the larger internet is made of, Joy often speaks of the “Six Webs”–six different paradigms under which the internet operates. There’s the Near Web, the Here Web, the Far Web, the Weird Web, B2B, and D2D.
When you’re sitting over a screen–say, your laptop–you’re participating in the Near Web. The Here Web is almost always with you because your phone remains in your pocket as you walk down the street, even when you’re not actively using it. When you’re sitting a bit further back from the screen–perhaps on your couch, streaming movies or shows on a TV–you’re experiencing the Far Web. If you pause your TV to shout “Hey Alexa” to the device five feet away on your kitchen counter–which, through artificial intelligence technology, is able to process your voice into an online purchase–you’re engaging the Weird Web. B2B (Business-to-Business) describes a web that casual internet users are not privy to–the one that connects business-oriented machines that allow factories, offices, and greater markets to work more efficiently. D2D (Device-to-Device) encapsulates all the other machines that benefit our larger society’s functioning, like the sensors that allow smart cities to address transportation congestion in real time.
The Six Webs might give you a sense of just how broad, diverse, and overlapping, the internet really is. It’s with and around you when you’re on your computer, yes, but also when you’re walking, driving, out with friends, shopping, and even while you’re asleep. All the connected devices around us affect our lives in ways we don’t even actively notice. Sometime around 2008 or 2009, according to those keeping track, the number of things connected to the world wide web exceeded the number of people on Earth using them. So, we started calling this larger schema the “internet of things”.
The First IoT Device
Today it may seem rather mundane, but try imagining, in 1982, how radical it would’ve been to outfit a vending machine with the internet. To any passerby, the combination might have made as much sense as pairing a guitar with maple syrup, the two things simply have different applications.
The computer wizards at Carnegie Mellon, however, knew that the internet wasn’t just something for your desktop computer–that the whole point of the web was to draw causal connections between people and devices, to solve problems, and increase the efficiency of communication across great distances.
The CMU Coke machine had six columns of Coke bottles, and each column had a corresponding light. The lights would flash red each time a Coke was purchased and stayed red if the corresponding column was sold out. The programmers at CMU designed a circuit board, with six switches, that would feed information from each light to the building’s central computer. Then, by logging into that central computer, anyone could track when a soda was bought, when the machine was sold out, how cold the bottles inside were (based on how long they had been in there), and which button to press to get the coldest.
Next, the students designed a protocol by which anyone using the internet anywhere could simply call on the school’s primary server to “finger coke@cmua”, and get the same information in an email. This meant that even if you were on the opposite side of campus, or in Los Angeles, you could see the exact status of CMU’s Coke machine (if, for some reason, you had the desire to do so).
The Future of IoT
Carnegie Mellon’s Coke machine demonstrates the duality of the internet of things: how significant and groundbreaking it is, as well as how mundane it can be. Those who take a less enthusiastic view of our evolving world might point to the needlessness of a “smart” refrigerator and, to a point, they’d be correct in their assertion. Not every device, on its own, necessitates connectivity. Yet, altogether, these devices offer us power, ease, and efficiency previously unheard of. First, it was the ability to monitor a single vending machine from anywhere in the country. Nowadays, using graduated versions of this same concept, we can make healthcare, transport, industry, business, and just about any aspect of modern life work faster and more effectively.
While today’s use cases are impressive, it’s the future that will truly bring IoT to the fore. Consider, as an example, what happens when a car crashes. Today, if a car crashes, in addition to twisted steel and possible injury, it usually triggers a certain set of events: a road blockage causing traffic congestion and the summoning of medical and law enforcement authorities.
Consider, however, this same situation occurring in a so-called “smart” city, where traffic lights, cars, public transportation systems, and even roads are infused with sensors taking in huge amounts of data in real time, then sending that data to automated command-and-control centers. A connected vehicle could presumably, within seconds, signal the location, nature, and severity of a crash to those best fit to help. An ambulance pick-up would be initiated right away, and traffic could be diverted away from the scene allowing the ambulance to move unhindered and to optimize flow for the other drivers in the area. And by the time the ambulance reaches the nearest hospital, awaiting doctors will be privy to any and all relevant information necessary to treat the patient immediately.
This is just one of any number of examples foreseen of how better-connected devices and a smarter cloud could improve our standard of living. However, not all implications of IoT are rosy. Where engineering is concerned, the major barrier to connecting the world’s devices is, naturally, getting them all to speak in a common tongue. We call this the “basket of remotes” problem. Your watch, television, and alarm clock can’t connect with each other…yet, because they’re built by different companies, using different tech, and with little to no concern for third-party integration. While some of the issues are less tech-based and steeped more in corporate proprietary and financial/market concerns, engineers and bodies that set standards and regulations for the industry nonetheless have a significant task lying ahead.
There’s also the matter of IoT security. The fact is hacking is all too easy already and hackers are always honing their skills. Most major companies have been hacked, and thousands upon thousands of computer owners fall victim to malware every day. What could compound the issue more than further connecting devices into larger and larger causal structures? “Pivoting” is the term used for when hackers are able to travel between sectors of a breached network–in other words, compromising point A of a network to get to point B, C, or X. Further connecting our internet may introduce more compromisable points of entry (and more avenues for leveraging those points of entry) to any hacker with the tools, knowledge, and motivation to manipulate our systems.
The future history of the internet of things is yet to be written, but its past history already is. In the late ‘80s, Carnegie Mellon’s Coca-Cola provider halted distribution on the old-style glass bottles, transferring over to new plastic bottles. The old machine could no longer service the new bottle shape, so it had to be replaced. It took a few years but, in 1992, the students were able to get the new machine online, along with the M&M machine nearby.
For the next two decades, that Coke machine remained the pride of CMU’s most innovative individuals. In the early 2000s, three students installed a camera on its face that would broadcast a live feed of a nearby table notorious for being the frequent location of free food. Later, the front of the machine was outfitted with a screen that displayed useful information, like the weather.
In a later interview with IBM, one of the engineers who originally outfitted the Coke machine back in 1982 recalled: “There was a running joke about how your toaster was one day going to be on the Internet. [. . .] People laughed at that.”
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