“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Arthur C. Clarke’s widely quoted proposition seems particularly apt nowadays. What in an earlier age we would have culturally construed as magic is now a reality-designed, planned, documented, and operated by technologists around the world. There are three main reasons for this: electronic parts have become smaller and cheaper; the world is interconnected by communications; and people have adopted a digital lifestyle.

Our magic brooms are home-cleaning robots; our magic mirrors are smartphones, equipped with Internet search engines that work much like all-knowing oracles, answering our questions out loud in an ersatz human voice. And the idea of the Internet of Things —a term proposed by Kevin Ashton in 1999— is that the information available on the Internet is not produced exclusively by people or by computerized systems but also by actual physical things around us like vehicles, clothes, soft drink cans, even a street bench. So what can the Internet of Things do for us humans?

We have already a vast range of developments, including clothes that let you monitor your running performance using a tiny electronic device under the sole of your shoe. Or Smart Cities that have already deployed networks of smart sensors to create sentient cities that are self-aware and adapt accordingly.

However, designers of web-connected products face a major technological challenge: how to make the devices self-powering. While you can afford the inconvenience of having to recharge your phone more or less every day, it is too much of a burden to devote the same sort of daily attention to another five or ten devices. Right now, it would strike you as silly to have to think “I need to recharge my smart shoes” or “I should put my umbrella in standby mode.”

Some smart devices, particularly wearable and outdoor ones, can harvest enough energy in a natural way from their environment to keep functioning self-sufficiently for long periods. The most widespread examples are environmental sensors in cities and wooded areas that generate solar power using photovoltaic cells. More striking, however, are wearable devices —sports shoes and equipment, for instance— that can draw off the energy that accumulates in the materials themselves as a result of movement and flexion while being used.

Tracking our daily activities

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” has become one of the most widely followed management adages today. Businesses apply this principle all the time, analyzing and cross referencing the data throughout the value chain to create products and services that provide the highest possible value at the lowest possible cost. But can we do the same thing in our everyday lives with wristbands or clips with built-in devices? Can we track all the data about our daily activities —sleeping, walking, eating, breathing— to analyze our habits? And how can we use the results of our analysis? The Quantified Self trend has emerged in the shape of popular commercial products that exhibit the object/service duality that is the hallmark of the Internet of Things. The trigger is the physical object, which collects data from the user’s environment; the object then sends the data to an online platform, the home of the service, which interprets the information, integrates it with other sources to enhance value, and reports it in userfriendly form.

The silence of chips

In 2009, the European Commission released a document entitled “Internet of Things: An Action Plan for Europe”, recommending ongoing supervision of the privacy and protection of captured personal data, identification of potential risks, and the creation of committees and forums monitoring the Internet of Things paradigm. The commission placed particular emphasis on a line of action dubbed “the silence of the chips.” This so-called right to the silence of the chips expresses the idea that an individual is entitled to disconnect, and to have sensor networks stop capturing and monitoring his or her activities.

The Internet of Things paradigm poses some challenges, but also a world of opportunities, because it is applicable to a wide swath of sectors and markets, embracing logistics and transport management, connected furniture and appliances, agricultural monitoring systems, smart clothes and accessories, toys, entertainment, and art. Predictions range from 20 to 50 billion products being connected to the Internet by the end of this decade. All of them designed to make life easier for us.

We are witnessing only the early stages in the history of smart web-connected products. Many challenges lie ahead-security and privacy, product energy and maintenance needs, new product/person relationship models leading to product/user/manufacturer relationships, and new business models reflecting the object/service duality. The magic of enchanted objects is finally becoming a reality. Enchanted objects are here. They are here to stay. And they are here to help us, opening up fascinating new horizons.

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First published August 5, 2016 at 03:34AM. Originally syndicated from: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602114/the-internet-of-things-outlook-and-challenges/