The technology industry is preparing for the Internet of things, a type of computing characterized by small, often dumb, usually unseen computers attached to objects. These devices sense and transmit data about the environment or offer new means of controlling it.
For more than a decade technologists have predicted and argued about the onslaught of these ubiquitous devices. “There is a lot of quibbling about what to call it, but there’s little doubt that we’re seeing the inklings of a new class of computer,” says David Blaauw, who leads a lab at the University of Michigan that makes functioning computers no bigger than a typed letter o.
A key feature is very cheap radios, etched right into silicon. There’s one in your smartphone. But now prices are falling to around $5. As they get cheaper, it’s becoming affordable to connect more things, like sewer pipes or trash cans. At the University of California, Berkeley, researchers are even designing computers the size of a pinhead to collect data inside the brain and transmit it through the skull. The idea is that human bodies will join the network, too (see “The Internet of You”).
It can all sound far-fetched and overhyped. Does anyone really need a smart coffee pot or a refrigerator with a Web browser? Plenty of the inventions do seem silly. On Amazon, product reviewers have had a field day with a $78 digital “egg minder” that reports to a smartphone which egg in a refrigerator is oldest. “Wonderful product!” sneered one. “So many gray hairs avoided by never having to worry about my eggs again.”
Yet for every killer app that wasn’t, there’s another computer-sensor combination that has quietly added to the capabilities of some machine. Since 2007, for instance, every new car in the United States has had a chip in each tire that measures pressure and sends data by radio to the car’s central computer. It’s starting to add up. The average new car has 60 microprocessors in it, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Electronics account for 40 percent of the cost of making a car.