"in the future, planet Earth will don an electronic skin"

Big ideas of 2015: the internet of things

This year could see the infrastructure put in place to make sci-fi imaginings a reality
December 10, 2014


"in the future, planet Earth will don an electronic skin"

Read the rest of our big ideas of 2015

Rushing out the door to work, you are stopped by an urgent beeping from the hatstand; it’s your umbrella, reminding you that it’s likely to rain later. After you grab it, you rush into your car. Knowing your stomach is likely to be grumbling, it checks the fridge in your train’s buffet carriage. Good news! That type of Danish pastry you like is available.

These scenarios were recently imagined by the computer scientist Peter McOwan in a British Science Association talk as examples of how “the internet of things” might soon affect our lives. The internet of things is the notion that once-deaf, dumb and blind objects will increasingly “talk with” and “learn from” one another; at any rate, they’ll be linked up with each other through the internet.

That means we’ll be able to communicate more with our devices remotely, and they will begin to control one another. Some “smart devices” exist already—LG has developed a “smart fridge,” for example—but 2015 could see them entering the mainstream. Apple’s “homekit,” which allows developers of smart devices to build in a facility for control by iPad or iPhone, will be released next year. Thread, new standard specifications designed to make smart devices network more effectively, which is backed by Samsung, Google’s Nest and others, will start appearing in products from the early part of the year. According to network manufacturer Cisco, 25bn devices will be connected to the internet by 2015, up from 12.5 billion in 2010.

There’s more to the internet of things than talking umbrellas. Harvard Business Review’s Michael Harper and James Heppelmann say that information technology has already vastly boosted competition, and thus productivity, twice. In the 1960s and 70s, computers automated formerly laborious activities like order processing. Then in the 1980s and 90s, the internet allowed firms to function more efficiently. Now, Harper and Heppelmann argue, there is a third wave: smart technology is leading to “dramatic improvements” in what products are able to do. The economy will see another leap in productivity as a result, they think.

“In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin,” wrote the sociologist Neil Gross in 1999. “It will use the internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations.” The coming year could see the infrastructure put in place to make this a reality.