Friday, December 02, 2005

ITU Report: The Internet of Things

ITU Internet Reports 2005: The Internet of Things is the seventh in the series of "ITU Internet Reports" originally launched in 1997 by the International Telecommunication Union. For previous titles in the series see ITU Internet Reports 2004: The Portable Internet , ITU Internet Reports 2003: Birth of Broadband, and ITU Internet Reports 2002: Internet for a Mobile Generation.

Written by a team of analysts from the Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU) of the ITU, the report takes a look at the next step in "always on" communications, in which new technologies like RFID and smart computing promise a world of networked and interconnected devices that provide relevant content and information whatever the location of the user. Everything from tires to toothbrushes will be in communications range, heralding the dawn of a new era, one in which today’s Internet (of data and people) gives way to tomorrow’s Internet of Things.

We are heading towards what can be termed a “ubiquitous network society”, one in which networks and networked devices are omnipresent. Early forms of ubiquitous information and communication networks are already visible in the widespread use of mobile phones today: there were over 1.8 billion mobile phones in circulation by the end of 2004, and the number is set to surpass 2 billion by the end of 2005. Mobile data applications such as SMS, i-mode and Vodafone Live! have brought Internet-like services to the pockets of many mobile phone users. But what if much more was connected to a network: a fridge, a car, a cup of tea?

At the dawn of the internet revolution, users were amazed at the possibility of contacting people and information across oceans and time zones, through a few clicks of their mouse. In order to do so, however, they typically had to sit in front of a computer device (PC) connected to a global network. Today, they can also use mobile phones and portable laptops. The next logical step in this technological revolution (connecting people anytime, anywhere) is to connect inanimate objects a communication network. This is the vision underlying the Internet of things. The use of electronic tags (e.g. RFID) and sensors will serve to extend the communication and monitoring potential of the network of networks, as will the introduction of computing power in everyday items such as razors, shoes and packaging. Advances in nanotechnology (i.e. manipulation of matter at the molecular level) will serve to further accelerate these developments.

The late Mark Weiser (at the time chief scientist at the XEROX Palo Alto Research Center) is quoted to have said: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” This well-known citation refers to the increasing “availability” and decreasing “visibility” of processing power. In other words, computing through dedicated devices will slowly disappear, while information processing capabilities will emerge throughout our surrounding environment. With the benefit of integrated information processing capacity, industrial products will take on smart capabilities. They may also take on electronic identities that can be queried remotely, or be equipped with sensors for detecting physical changes around them. Such developments will make the merely static objects of today dynamic ones - embedding intelligence in our environment and stimulating the creation of innovative products and new business opportunities. The Internet of Things will enable forms of collaboration and communication between people and things, and between things themselves, hitherto unknown and unimagined.

It seems that we are standing on the brink of a new computing and communication era, one that will radically transform our corporate, community, and personal spheres. With continuing developments in miniaturization and declining costs, it is becoming not only technologically possible but also economically feasible to make everyday objects smarter, and to connect the world of people with the world of things. Building this new environment however, will pose a number of challenges. Technological standardization in most areas is still in its infancy, or remains fragmented. Not surprisingly, managing and fostering rapid technological innovation will be a challenge for governments and industry alike. But perhaps one of the most important challenges is convincing users to adopt emerging technologies like RFID. Concerns over privacy and data protection are widespread, particularly as sensors and smart tags can track a user’s movements, habits and preferences on a perpetual basis. Fears related to nanotechnology range from bio-medical hazards to robotic control. But whatever the concern, one thing remains clear: scientific and technological advances in these fields continue to move ahead at breakneck speed. It is only through awareness of such advances, and the challenges they present, that we can reap the future benefits of a fair, user-centric and global Internet of Things.


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Machines and objects to overtake humans on the Internet: ITU
Nov 17 7:55 AM US/Eastern

Machines will take over from humans as the biggest users of the Internet in a brave new world of electronic sensors, smart homes, and tags that track users' movements and habits, the UN's telecommunications agency predicted. In a report entitled "Internet of Things", the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) outlined the expected next stage in the technological revolution where humans, electronic devices, inanimate objects and databases are linked by a radically transformed Internet.

"It would seem that science fiction is slowly turning into science fact in an 'Internet of Things' based on ubiquitous network connectivity," the report said Thursday, saying objects would take on human characteristics thanks to technological innovation.

"Today, in the 2000s, we are heading into a new era of ubiquity, where the 'users' of the Internet will be counted in billions and where humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of traffic," it added.

Currently there are about 875 million Internet users worldwide, a number that may simply double if humans remain the primary users of the future.

But experts are counting on tens of billions of human and inanimate "users" in future decades.

They would be tied into an all pervasive network where there would be no need to power up a computer to connect -- "anytime, anywhere, by anyone and anything", the report said.

Remote computer-controlled household appliances are already appearing, as well as prototype cars with collision-avoidance sensors.

Mobile phones can be used as electronic train tickets while meat exports from Namibia or goods for US retail chain Wal-Mart are tagged with sensors to allow them to be tracked.

The ITU's vision goes further, highlighting refrigerators that independently communicate with grocery stores, washing machines that communicate with clothing, implanted tags with medical equipment and vehicles with stationary or moving objects.

Industrial products would also become increasingly "smart", gaining autonomy and the intelligence thanks to miniaturised but more powerful computing capacity.

"Even particles and 'dust' might be tagged and networked", the ITU said.

"In this way the virtual world would map the real world, given that everything in our physical environment would have its own identity (a passport of sorts) in virtual cyberpsace," the report forecast.

The trend is being fuelled by a small number of technological developments, including miniature radio frequency RFID electronic tags that allow immediate identification and tracking, and new sensor technology, as well as smart devices and nanotechnology.

While the report laid out economic opportunities, a huge expansion of the IT industry and innovation in a wide range of fields from health to entertainment, it also warned of a number of challenges, including privacy issues.

Some of the applications envisaged for emerging RFID tags are to replace human ID documents, track consumer habits, or banknotes.

The ITU said tighter linkages would be needed between those that create the technology and those that use it to cope with its forecast new world.

"In a world increasingly mediated by technology, we must ensure that the human core of our activities remains untouched," the report concluded.

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UN predicts 'internet of things'
By Elizabeth Biddlecombe

World leaders at the UN summit
World leaders are in Tunis to discuss the net and development
Changes brought about by the internet will be dwarfed by those prompted by the networking of everyday objects, says a report by a UN body.

The study looks at how the use of electronic tags and sensors could create an "internet of things".

The report by the International Telecommunications Union was released at the UN net summit in Tunis.

Thousands of delegates are discussing ways of narrowing the technology gap between rich and poor.

"It would seem that science fiction is slowly turning into science fact in an 'Internet of Things' based on ubiquitous network connectivity," said the report.

"Today, in the 2000s, we are heading into a new era of ubiquity, where the 'users' of the internet will be counted in billions and where humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of traffic."

Global involvement

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), sensors, robotics and nanotechnology will make processing power increasingly available in smaller and smaller packages so that networked computing dissolves into the fabric of things around us.

Golden Gate Bridge
Sensors check San Francisco's famous landmark for damage
The result could mean remote controls embedded in clothing, cars that alert their driver when they have developed a fault, managers who check on workers through the RFID devices embedded in their phones, and bags that remind their owners that they have forgotten something.

There are already examples of the technology in action. Tiny sensors are used to check San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge for structural damage and in coffee beans in Brazil for quality control.

Some of the benefits of this ubiquitous networked society include cheaper HIV treatments, more effective pharmaceutical controls and the purification of water using nanofilters.

Wealth creation

Unlike previous technological revolutions, some developing countries are already heavily involved in generating the science and products around these items.

"The traditional dominance of industrialised countries in scientific and technological innovations will weaken, in favour of less wealthy but no less tech-savvy nations," said the ITU report.

Things like privacy protection should become part of the design itself of the technology, even before it makes it to market
Lara Srivastava, ITU
Entitled The Internet of Things, the study said that the demands of multi-national businesses are forcing countries to adopt the new technology.

For example, the request by American retail giant Wal-Mart that its top suppliers use RFID tags has prompted Chinese manufacturers to adopt the technology.

The so-called Internet of Things is predicted to offer new business opportunities for all, from manufacturers to the telecoms industry, and create entirely new markets.

But it cold also have negative impacts, such as increased levels of electro-magnetic radiation generated by a world of communicating objects.

Everything monitored?

The ITU report cautions that the needs and wishes of human being must be kept central to all these endeavours and the public must be educated about their implications.

"Money talks, that's clear," said Lara Srivastava, of the Strategy and Policy Unit at the ITU.

"However we can make it talk less loudly if we put forward some of these issues early on.

"Things like privacy protection should become part of the design itself of the technology, even before it makes it to market."

To this end, governments, the private sector and other agencies must act from the outset to safeguard principles of informed consent, data confidentiality and security, according to the report.

"Society will have to deal with some very substantial issues," said Jonathan Murray, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft Europe.

"The rapid transition created by the network effect do not increase the digital divide."

Concerns about RFID technology have already led to consumer boycotts. In addition, the lack of technical standards for the component technologies could hinder its evolution.

But while it is hard to say to what extent it will develop, the past gives us a hint of the future, according to Ms Srivastava.

"It's safe to say that technology today is more pervasive than we would ever have imagined possible 10 years ago," she said.

"Similarly, 10 years from now things will continue in this general direction. That's what these new technologies are telling us."

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Wireless: Creating Internet of 'Things': A scary, but exciting
By Victoria Shannon International Herald Tribune

TUNIS Miniaturization, the ubiquity of consumer electronics and the global Internet are speeding up the creation of a worldwide "network of things," where cars, phones, turnstiles - even books and clothing - know about us: who we are, where we are, what we are doing.

This vision of a "Star Trek" world, where things like food replicators do our bidding, has been forecast for decades. Today, it looms closer, neither "science fiction nor industry hype," the International Telecommunication Union concluded in a study issued here last week, "but based on solid technological advances."

Referring to radio frequency identification, Negroponte said: "When we talk about an Internet of things, it's not just putting RFID tags on some dumb thing so we smart people know where that dumb thing is. It's about embedding intelligence so things become smarter and do more than they were proposed to do."

In order to connect things, they need to be recognized on the network, through a technology like RFID. Then, sensor technology needs to be able to detect changes in their physical status, knowing features like temperature and recognizing location and direction.

Finally, the combination of the two technologies and how human beings manipulate them through the Internet gives them intelligence. "Eventually, even particles as small as dust might be tagged and networked," the ITU said.

This assumes each technology is working under a common standard, something that is easier said than done. That and the concerns of privacy and data protection may be the biggest issues holding back an Internet of things, the ITU said. For ordinary consumers, the prospect of a world where not just everyone but everything is linked is just as scary as it is exciting.

When objects are "intelligent," there are few ways to get them to stop talking about us. Also, some experts ask rhetorically, what happens to personal responsibility? If you are in a car connected to a network that has an accident, who is at fault, you or the system? Who is in charge? Such concerns have already stalled some radio-tag trials.


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