The Internet of things

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Imagine being slowly brought out of your sleep this morning with a soft piped-in music being played on cue just a few minutes before your wake-up time. As the music grows steadily louder, the coffee machine turns on and brews a cup for breakfast and makes another one for work. It sends a message to your tablet (or phone) to buy additional filters since there is only enough for a few days more. The microwave also starts up to heat the remaining food from last night and starts the calorie intake monitor in your smart wristband and the weighing scale positioned at a strategic place in your bedroom.

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As you walk out of your house after breakfast, your phone reminds you of your appointments and urges you to walk faster to catch the bus in order to avoid the predicted traffic that will happen in an hour’s time. Your house shuts down unnecessary machines to conserve energy and patiently monitors your doors and windows for intruders. It also performs an inventory of supplies by querying your refrigerator, your rice box and other storage areas and sends a summary of things needed to buy on the way home. It even notifies you of the ongoing sale at the corner store.

This is the promise of the future with your devices connected to the Internet of Things. But let us rewind again our timeline and imagine that you are back on your bed sleeping.

Imagine that an infrared camera focused on your face takes continuous thermal images and records your rapid eye movement and temperature to detect if you are about to wake up. Your mattress is smart enough to count the number of tosses and turns you make with a vibration meter while a microphone attached to your pillow records the snoring (or silence) you made during the night.

At the approach of the hour you have set for the alarm, your clock picks an album track from your music collection based on your previous night’s playlist. The alarm clock then sends a notification to the coffee machine, which turns on a pump to put in water in the coffee maker, and a small conveyor then measures out the correct ground beans for two cups. It checks the filter supply status, sends a message to your tablet and informs the microwave to heat up the food from last night. The microwave starts up your health wristband and selects the calorie counter app, which then turns on the weighing scale at the foot of your bed and updates your online weight data.

As you leave for work, your phone obtains your position using GPS and calculates your walking time for your commute to work. It checks a traffic prediction site and urges you to walk faster. As you leave your house, the food containers checks its shelves that are equipped with weighing scales, color and odor sensors to make an estimate of what is left in your cupboards. It then compares this data to your weekly consumption and sends the information back to your phone.

The scenarios that I have described in two different ways are not science fiction anymore. Most of the technologies that I mentioned are already available off the shelf for ordinary consumers. There are health-monitoring wrist bands that can talk to your phone while a few appliances can already be remotely controlled or programmed to work as narrated above.

The idea behind the so-called “Internet of Things” is that of ubiquitous inter-connected “smart” devices that are used like appliances are used today. These devices are made “smart” by integrating a sensor (or many sensors) that will trigger a clear action depending on a program and can talk to other such devices through the Internet. Such sensor technologies had been readily available in recent years in commercial devices such as your cellphone. Attaching these sensors to small and cheap microprocessors can give “intelligence” to devices. Adding communication capabilities through radio technologies or the Internet, makes these “smart things” able to converse with each other.

The pervasive nature of these 24/7 monitoring, however, should also give us pause from our futuristic dreaming. Your walls can now be literally made to “see” you and your activities, your appliances made to respond to different triggers, directly or indirectly caused by your past actions. Worse, data about you, your activities, your location and preferences are being sent from appliance to appliance and from your house to the rest of the world through the Internet.

These privacy issues must be resolved for the Internet of Things to be unobtrusive and helpful for many. The issues of who controls the data, the control of services and who makes the “things”—the products, appliances and the infrastructure– that will enable the Internet of Things possible should be answered head on.

For us Filipinos, the biggest factor would always be its price and availability. As long as we keep on importing consumer goods, the Internet of Things would always be a thing of the future for most of us. Local engineers, scientists and design professionals should start building not only consumer products for our domestic use but also for production equipment at our farms and factories that will sense the world and be connected to each other in order to ease our labor and make our lives a bit better.

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