Some of you may have seen the movie “The Imitation Game.” Set within a British intelligence service during World War II, it is a fictional account of the creation of what some have called the first computer. It is a monstrous concoction of switches, levers and spindles that, after churning away for several minutes, could decipher secret enemy messages.
My first exposure to a computer came a few decades later when, in a newsroom setting, we bought a cabinet full of hardware that went by the name of Mighty Mouse. It was a good six feet high and equally as wide with an open back so our marginally competent tech guys could do trial and error with the wiring if something went wrong.
Since then the real estate requirement for computing has progressively shrunk and become a lot more personnel. We’ve moved from desktops to laptops to handhelds. And the shrinkage in size has often been accompanied by an expansion in function.
That trend will continue. In fact technologists believe that computers will continue to shrink to the point of being invisible to the human eye. At that point you can’t plug them in or carry a battery, even if we do, as some believe, come up with batteries that last 50 years. So part of this development is about alternative energy sources like solar, or maybe even body heat.
The availability of micro computing will make the current generation of wearables seem like “wearing a boom box on your wrist” (The Future of Wearable Tech, Jen Quinlan). We have had some introduction to wearables. There was the much ballyhooed Google glasses, which didn’t last long as apparently looking like a distracted dork outweighed the advantage of being an early adapter. Somewhat more successfully there’s been a modestly wide take up of the Fitbit and similar activity tracking bracelets.
What’s to come? Jewelry is a prime casing for technology. At Google, there is an initiative underway called Project Jacquard which is researching the ability to weave computing capabilities into fabrics, thus making our pants a wearable device. Elsewhere researchers are looking at embedding devices in diapers to monitor a baby’s health. When computers become smaller than the naked eye can see, embedded devices and sensors can be planted virtually anywhere. Did you know there was such a thing as a “smart bottle” of Johnnie Walker Blue Label?
The actual wearable device is not what is important to our future, but rather what it connects to and what information it collects. Because along with planting technology on individuals, the shrinkage of computing is what will make commonplace the “Internet of Things.” The technology research firm Gartner predicts that there will be at least 500 “smart objects” in the average home in the future. We already know about things like thermostats and security systems. Among the things that are candidates for future conversion from “dark assets” to “smart objects” will be door knobs, refrigerators, smoke alarms, air conditioning and heating systems, and water faucets.
It is at that point where the connection between wearables and the Internet of things really starts to impact how stuff gets done. For example a signature from your wearable device might unlock your door at the appropriate time. Or your bracelet could monitor your body heat and trigger the startup of your home air conditioning or heating system. Maybe if you start following a recipe on your smart phone, your oven will automatically preheat to the appropriate temperature.
The Internet of things won’t be limited to what you wear or where you live. It also means devices with memory and tracking capability on utility poles, buildings, traffic lights, transit vehicles and parking meters, to name a few.
And at that point what we have heretofore referred to as “big data” becomes gargantuan data. How we capture that and put it to use will have a lot to say about what our lives are like 10, 20 or 50 years from now. This series of posts will explore some of the questions about how technology changes our future. Can we survive always on? Will machines become smarter than humans? What happens to work? How do we get from place to place? Can we have both transparency and privacy?