When everything connects
Take a look at the last survey of the Economist (April 28th 2007). That’s simply great!
Information technology has nothing to lose but its cables
The wireless was once a big, wood-panelled machine glowing faintly in the corner of the living-room. Today’s wireless device is the sleek mobile phone nestling in your pocket. In coming years wireless will vanish entirely from view, as communications chips are embedded in a host of everyday objects. Such chips, and the networks that link them together, could yet prove to be the most potent wireless of them all.
Just as microprocessors have been built into everything in the past few decades, so wireless communications will become part of objects big and small. The possibilities are legion. Gizmos and gadgets will talk to other devices—and be serviced and upgraded from afar. Sensors on buildings and bridges will run them efficiently and ensure they are safe. Wireless systems on farmland will measure temperature and humidity and control irrigation systems. Tags will certify the origins and distribution of food and the authenticity of medicines. Tiny chips on or in people’s bodies will send vital signs to clinics to help keep them healthy.
The computing revolution was about information—digitising documents, photographs and records so that they could more easily be manipulated. The wireless-communications revolution is about making digital information about anything available anywhere at almost no cost. No longer tied down by wires and cables, more information about more things will get to the place where it is most valuable.
For the moment, the mobile phone is stealing the show. It is evolving from a simple phone into a wallet, keychain, health monitor and navigation device. But as mobile-phone technology matures, even more innovation is taking place in areas of wireless that link things only metres or millimetres apart.
For that, thank the cross-breeding of Marconi’s radio and the microprocessor. Etched into silicon, the radio is starting to benefit from the dramatic decreases in size and cost and the huge increase in performance that have recently propelled computing. Satellite-navigation chips today cost as little as a dollar apiece. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags can be made so tiny that they fit into the groove of a thumb-print. When power can be wirelessly routed to such devices, something that is not far off, all the pieces will be in place.
Wireless brings countless benefits, as our special report in this issue describes. Devices and objects can be monitored or controlled at a distance. Huge amounts of data that were once impossible or too expensive to collect will become the backbone of entirely new services. Wireless communications should boost productivity just as information technology has.
Imagine how wireless communications could change motoring. Carmakers are starting to monitor vehicles so that they know when to replace parts before they fail, based on changes in vibration or temperature. If there is a crash, wireless chips could tell the emergency services where to come, what has happened and if anyone is hurt. Traffic information can be instantaneous and perfectly accurate. They administer tolls based on precise routes. One American firm leases cars to people with bad credit who cannot get a loan, knowing that if payments are missed it can block the ignition and find the car to repossess it. British insurers offer policies with premiums based on precisely when and where a person drives.
Of course, plenty of work will be needed before wireless communications can realise their promise. The first obstacle is novelty. As is usual in the early days of a new industry, all kinds of proprietary systems abound, many of them built from scratch—rather as early computer hackers fiddled with their Altairs in the mid-1970s. Until common standards and protocols emerge for machine-to-machine and wireless sensor communications, costs will be a problem.
It is not yet clear who will bang heads together to set standards. Today’s mobile-phone businesses may be too busy getting people to talk to bother much about talking machines. Sony Ericsson and Nokia, two giants of the mobile-phone industry, have in recent years sold their machine-to-machine divisions. Mobile operators see the new field as such a small part of their overall business that it gets relegated to the back-burner. That has left an opening for fleet-footed firms from computing, as well as industrial conglomerates, such as Samsung, Philips, Honeywell and Hitachi. Just this week, General Electric’s sensing division said it wanted to use wireless sensors in industries as diverse as drugs and petrochemicals.
Government will play a crucial role, not least because radio spectrum will be in short supply. That makes it more important than ever that the airwaves are sensibly allocated according to the ability to pay. Special “reserves” and unlicensed spectrum could be put aside for emerging technologies that lack financial or political clout. And politicians and business people would do well to keep an eye on the health risks of electromagnetic radiation. No serious evidence yet suggests it is a danger—but the nonsense over genetically modified foods shows how much a new technology needs popular approval.
A greater concern in the long term is privacy. Today’s laws often assume that privacy is guaranteed by a pact between consumer and company, or citizen and state. In a world where many networks interconnect on the fly and information is widely shared, that will not work. At a minimum, wireless networks should let users know when they are being monitored.
But for the moment the danger is surely too much regulation, not too little. It is hard for anyone—politicians most of all—to picture how wireless will be used, just as it was with electric motors and microprocessors, two earlier stand-alone technologies that have been built into a plethora of devices. Wireless technology will become a part of objects in the next 50 years rather as electric motors appeared in everything from eggbeaters to elevators in the first half of the 20th century and computers colonised all kinds of machinery from cars to coffee machines in the second half. Occasionally, the results will be frightening; more often, they will be amazingly useful.