If you think about it, the first “Internet” looked nothing like it does today. In fact, it was created as a specialized network architecture for the purposes of national defense and security. It goes without saying that, since then, the Internet has had an impact on creativity, global business and economic growth that surpasses even the wildest expectations of the innovators who created it. But if you ask me, we still haven’t even scratched the surface.
The next revolution of the Internet is not going to be built on manual input of information by 500 million or a billion users. Rather, there is much greater potential in connecting computers to sensors so that valuable new information can be created automatically without human data entry. Much like the early days of the Internet (which was purpose-built to help maintain our collective safety and connectivity), the next generation of sensor networks can monitor our environment and deliver relevant information –- automatically.
Most of us have only recently become aware of sensors from swinging Wii tennis rackets, or switching our smartphones from landscape to portrait mode. What you may not realize, however, is that sensors are being created that are a a thousand times more sensitive than this and can be harnessed to have an incredible global impact.
I see sensors tackling our world’s largest issues: safety, security and sustainability.
How Sensors can Measure the World
A simple way to think about this concept is to compare it to a passive RFID tag, which is used to track objects (everything ranging from a clothing product to the progression of a food chain) and provides real-time information about the status and movement of that object. The problem is that this is relatively static information, as location is only updated when a tag passes near a reader and the system typically requires a significant amount of manual data input to augment location and to set the stage for future worthwhile findings.
A wireless sensor network brings much more awareness as the information can be available at any time. The sensor tag is capable of not just telling us where an object is, but information about its environment and how it is behaving. Take, for example, a food production chain. A network of biochemical sensors can understand where and how food is being produced and stored by “smelling” it. Then, the sensors can tell if the food is contaminated and being handled safely and automatically relay that information to a human manager so that the necessary precautions can be taken before a contaminant can spread.
The same applies in our personal lives. If interconnected motion and heat sensor devices were spread out around your home, a computer system could understand when you leave a room, and would, for example, know when to turn off the lights automatically and unobtrusively. Just think: A compact fluorescent light bulb may use 75% less energy than a traditional light bulb, but a light bulb that is turned off altogether uses 100% less.
The reason this is possible is because of the very Internet that is allowing you to read this post. The Internet provides the backbone to move information and make decisions. It’s up to us to harness that network for the greater good. Quite simply, we need the Internet to become better at adjusting and adapting dynamically to serve our needs. We have the tools -– the problem is that our computers are blind, deaf and numb to the world around us. We need to give them senses.
How to Get There
How are we going to do it? Well, we need a system in place that captures the pulse of our surrounding environment. In an ideal world, we will have incredibly small sensor technology (smaller than a pin) spread out all over the world. We will have sensors attached to suspension bridges to monitor structural flaws, lying alongside highways to measure traffic flow and road conditions, or in our homes and offices to watch how we are using our spaces. With billions, perhaps even trillions of sensors, we can begin to understand not just how the world is behaving, but how we are affecting it.
Of course, there are many relevant security and privacy challenges that follow from this vision, but I believe they can and will be solved. In the end, our goal isn’t to know more about individuals, but rather to know more about the actions going on around us. For example, on the highway, we don’t need sensors to know who is driving where and when; but, we do want to know when a vehicle in front of you slams on the brakes so that people in danger are alerted and can respond immediately.
It is imperative that we solve the privacy and security issues because sensor networks are one of the principal ways we can use technology to address some of our most pressing global challenges like disease, pollution and climate change. Yet, that technology can also have simpler and more immediate applications, like social networks. By understanding how our surroundings are changing in real-time, there is the potential for social networks to adapt to us more quickly. This can take the form of driving directions updating in real time based on traffic conditions. Or, for example, it could mean you receive restaurant recommendations that cross-reference your friends’ recommendations with data about where you’ve eaten recently and which seafood is freshest in your area.
Achieving this network of information is no easy task. Many have tried and failed to date. My company is working on a solution called CeNSE, which stands for “Central Nervous System of the Earth,” and we’re already deploying these sensors in real-world applications.