The Internet of Things wants to link all facets of our world | Science News for Students

The Internet of Things wants to link all facets of our world

In a connected world, everything from basketballs to cars to refrigerators is coming online
Jan 26, 2017 — 7:10 am EST
Internet of things

The touch screen on a phone, computer or other device (even a voice command) may be all it takes to control appliances, medical devices, a thermostat or more. A wide variety of such products and processes are already part of the growing Internet of Things.

stefanocar75 / iStockphoto

A 94Fifty looks like an ordinary basketball. You can inflate, dribble, pass, shoot, swoosh and slam-dunk it. But there’s more going on than meets the fingers.

During play, the ball records how hard and fast a person dribbles and throws. It also measures the arc of a shot. It sends the data to a user’s smartphone. This phone then uses an app to analyze a player’s game. Then the app offers tips for better ball handling or for improving three-point shots.

Will this ball help a driveway hotshot become the next LeBron James? It’s too soon to tell. But many experts think it may well be part of a revolution in technology.

The 94Fifty is a “smart” basketball. It gets its name from the dimensions of an NBA court: 94 feet by 50 feet (28.7 by 15 meters). The ball “observes” the world around it. It then can use these data to calculate things and provide useful information to help a player get better. It’s part of the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things is the idea that ordinary objects can be turned into “smart” objects that measure and interact with their environments. A smart refrigerator keeps track of what’s inside. A smart lightbulb turns itself off when not in use. A smart toilet flushes itself and texts a user if it springs a leak or is about to overflow. These devices might communicate with users through their smartphones or home computer networks.

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94Fifty ball
The 94Fifty basketball has sensors that collect data on a player's game. That data is sent to a smartphone app, which offers coaching tips.

Like every new advance in technology, the Internet of Things brings both excitement and challenges. Its promises include better healthcare, energy savings and a more connected world. One of its big challenges is to keep users’ data safe from hackers. (The second part of this two-part series addresses security risks posed by the Internet of Things.)

Object by object, for better or worse, the world is becoming ever more connected.

The third wave

The Internet of Things didn’t appear overnight. “It’s been a long process,” notes Jason Hong. He's a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. Computer scientists have been laying the groundwork for a connected world for decades.

The first object on the internet was a Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon in the early 1980s. The machine could measure and send information about the coldest sodas inside. Since then, as technology has improved and spread, more objects have gone online. “Things have been slowly getting smart and connected,” says Hong.

Now cars, toys, billboards, stuffed animals, appliances and lights are online. So are cows. Farmers can attach devices to their animals to track the health of herds. If a cow develops a fever or is about to give birth, the device immediately alerts the farmer.

smart cow
Farmers can attach smart collars, RFID tags or leg bands to cows to monitor their health.
Evelyn Simak/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA-2.0)

One of the first people to predict a connected world was a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. In a Scientific American article 25 years ago, this Mark Weiser described a future that looks a lot like our present.

“The most profound technologies are those that disappear,” he wrote. “They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.” In other words, powerful technologies become such a basic part of our lives that we stop noticing them. He points to writing as an example from history of a technology that has become so widespread we barely notice it. Writing fills candy wrappers, billboards and websites. Computing is already on its way there — we use tablet screens and smart phones without paying attention to the computers within.

Weiser didn’t describe his vision as the “Internet of Things.” He used the phrase “ubiquitous computing.” (The word ubiquitous refers to something that is found everywhere.) But the two terms essentially mean the same thing. He imagined a world where anything could be turned into a computer. (Sadly, Weiser didn’t live to see today’s explosion of connected objects. He died of cancer in 1999.)

Hong, at Carnegie Mellon, thinks the Internet of Things is a “third wave” of computing. He described this idea in the April-June 2016 issue of IEEE Pervasive Computing. This scientific journal focuses on research about the Internet of Things. 

Each wave, he says, joined people and computers in a new way. The first wave brought basic computing. Companies began using computers in the 1950s, and personal computers appeared in homes in the 1980s and 1990s. During those years, scientists figured out how to make computers do work and store data.

The second wave, beginning around the turn of the 21st century, was all about connections. People started to widely use the internet and smartphones. Using these two technologies, people now can be online almost anywhere.

In connected devices, small is the name of the game. This tiny circuit board is an accelerometer, which detects and measures motion.
Marius Kintel/Flickr (CC By 2.0)

The third wave is the Internet of Things. It promises yet another major shift. Computers are becoming parts of everyday objects. Many technological advances have made it possible to build smart devices, says Hong. For example, wireless technology lets us send data through networks without cables. Computers have become cheaper, smaller and more powerful.

“The smartphone in your pocket is more powerful than a supercomputer you could get 20 years ago,” Hong says. The technology to put ordinary objects online has been around for a long time, he adds. But in the past it was too expensive. “Now the cost is quite low.”

In 2008, society reached an important milestone. The number of devices connected to the internet grew to outnumber the human population. At the time, there were about 6.7 billion people on Earth. According to predictions by Gartner, a technology company, more than 20 billion devices will be online by 2020. Most will be part of the Internet of Things.

Magic in the machine

A gyroscope stays upright as its wheel turns. Smaller versions of this device help smartphones and other connected devices detect and record motion.
LucasVB/Wikimedia Commons

Maria Ebling wants people to know what makes smart objects so smart. She’s a computer scientist at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. There, she develops software for smart devices.

“Some people like to use these tools and just be amazed by the magic,” she says. “But I think it’s a lot more fun to find out how things work.”

Take the 94Fifty. The basketball uses nine sensors. Those include accelerometers and gyroscopes. Accelerometers measure how fast an object speeds up or slows down. (In cars, they are important for safety. They can detect collisions and inflate airbags or lock seat belts.) In a basketball, the information from these sensors helps the software calculate how quickly the ball moved, and where. A gyroscope is a device that looks like a freely spinning wheel in a small frame. It helps measure how an object rotates.

Every smart object is different. “Some have microphones, some have cameras, some have GPS sensors,” says Ebling. (GPS, or the Global Positioning System, is the technology behind navigation apps, for example. It uses satellites to pinpoint an object’s location.)

A smart medical device might use sensors to measure a patient’s blood pressure, pulse or blood oxygen levels. A doll called Hello Barbie uses cameras and microphones to recognize a child and talk to her. The smart refrigerator makes images of its contents with a camera.

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A smart home will have devices and security systems hooked up to the internet so that they can talk to one another — and alert the homeowner is there are any problems. Or the owner could use a smartphone app to turn on lights or adjust the thermostat while still commuting home.
Shai-Halud / iStockphoto

There are even entire smart homes. A smart house uses many sensors to conserve energy. One may measure temperature, another measure the lighting, and another track whether anyone is home. A smart house can observe the people who live there and change itself to be safer, more energy efficient and more comfortable. 

Every object in the Internet of Things needs a way to share the data it gathers. Some send data using radio waves, a type of low-power radiation. This technology is called radio frequency identification, or RFID. An RFID chip on an object can store information that another device will read. (Pet owners get RFID chips implanted in their pets as a form of identification, for example.)

Many smart objects, like the 94Fifty basketball, don’t use RFID. Instead, they connect to a smartphone or other device using wireless communication. This is similar to how a computer connects to a wireless network.

These sensors and communication devices are cheap and easy to buy. That means almost anyone with inspiration and a little know-how in computer programming can create a “smart” device.

“I can buy a crate of parts that fit together incredibly cheap and write a little bit of software, and suddenly I have an Internet of Things product,” says Jonathan Margulies. He’s a security expert in Washington, D.C., who coauthored a book for students and experts called Security in Computing. To create "smart" products, “You don’t need a computer science degree,” he says, “just a clever idea.”

The glow ahead

Connected objects raise many important challenges for computer scientists. Perhaps the most important one is security. Everything connected to the internet gives hackers a chance to steal data or sabotage the device. Yet many companies don't pay enough attention to security, says Sye Loong Keoh. He’s a computer scientist at the University of Glasgow’s campus in Singapore.

nest thermostat
A Nest thermostat is a smart device that learns its user’s schedule and habits, then adjusts the temperature in the house throughout the day to save energy.
Amanitamano/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA-3.0)

These companies “just want to roll out a product,” says Keoh. “They won’t care about security until their devices are hacked.”

For example, the Hello Barbie doll isn't like other dolls. It interacts with its owner. This toy recognizes a person’s voice and responds as if continuing a conversation. And this makes some people uneasy. Why? Hello Barbie works by connecting to a home's wireless network. And when children talk to Barbie, the doll sends their messages via Wi-Fi and the internet to a faraway computer. That means any information that kids or parents tell the doll is heard or analyzed by computer software. Users of products like Hello Barbie usually don't think about how a company will use that information.

Another challenge is how to use this technology to benefit people. Connected objects may be flashy and impressive, but that does not mean they’re achieving something useful. One area where they have potential to help people is in healthcare.

Doctors have to consider many pieces of information when they make decisions about patients. Sometimes all that information can be overwhelming. Imagine that in the future a doctor is caring for some patient with unusual symptoms. Sensors in a smart exam room might measure those symptoms and send them to a computer program. Then the computer scans up-to-date research on those symptoms. The computer can then quickly narrow down possible diagnoses, Ebling says, and share them with the doctor.

Ultimately, the doctor still needs to make a decision to help the patient. And that demonstrates one of the biggest questions about the Internet of Things, notes Ebling. “How do we get humans and computers to work together in partnerships," she asks, "so humans do what humans do best, and computers do what computers do best?” 

Scientists will be trying to answer that question for years, whether the technology is helping solve medical puzzles or just improving our three-point shots.

This is the first of a two-part series.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

accelerometer     An instrument for measuring vibrations or a change in the rate of movement. These sensors typically can measure movement changes in all three dimensions (front-to-back, side-to-side and up-and-down).

app     Short for application , or a computer program designed for a specific task.

arc     A curve, often mapping out what appears to be part of a circle.

blood pressure     The force exerted against vessel walls by blood moving through the body. Usually this pressure refers to blood moving specifically through the body’s arteries. That pressure allows blood to circulate to our heads and keeps the fluid moving so that it can deliver oxygen to all tissues. Blood pressure can vary based on physical activity and the body’s position. High blood pressure can put someone at risk for heart attacks or stroke. Low blood pressure may leave people dizzy, or faint, as the pressure becomes too low to supply enough blood to the brain.

computer program     A set of instructions that a computer uses to perform some analysis or computation. The writing of these instructions is known as computer programming.

computer science     The scientific study of the principles and use of computers. Scientists who work in this field are known as computer scientists .

data     Facts and/or statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that gives them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

diagnose     To analyze clues or symptoms in the search for their cause. The conclusion usually results in a diagnosis — identification of the causal problem or disease.

frequency     The number of times a specified periodic phenomenon occurs within a specified time interval. (In physics) The number of wavelengths that occurs over a particular interval of time.

global positioning system     Best known by its acronym GPS, this system uses a device to calculate the position of individuals or things (in terms of latitude, longitude and elevation — or altitude) from any place on the ground or in the air. The device does this by comparing how long it takes signals from different satellites to reach it.

gyroscope     A device to measure the 3-dimensional orientation of something in space. Mechanical forms of the device tend to use a spinning wheel or disc that allows one axle inside it to take on any orientation.

hack     (in computing) To get unapproved — often illegal — access to a computer, usually to steal or alter data or files. Someone who does this is known as a hacker.

information     (as opposed to data) Facts provided or trends learned about something or someone, often as a result of studying data.

internet     An electronic communications network. It allows computers anywhere in the world to link into other networks to find information, download files and share data (including pictures).

Internet of Things     The network of physical objects that have been equipped with electronic devices to let them gather and share information. This allows these objects to observe and interact with their environment.

network     A group of interconnected people or things.

online     A term that refers to things that can be found or done on the internet.

radiation     (in physics) One of the three major ways that energy is transferred. (The other two are conduction and convection.) In radiation, electromagnetic waves carry energy from one place to another. Unlike conduction and convection, which need material to help transfer the energy, radiation can transfer energy across empty space.

RFID     Short for radio frequency identification. It’s a technology that uses tiny computer chips implanted in products, packaging or animals. A device can scan those tags to retrieve information, using radio frequencies, that has been stored on them.

radio waves     Waves in a part of the electromagnetic spectrum; they are a type that people now use for long-distance communication. Longer than the waves of visible light, radio waves are used to transmit radio and television signals; it is also used in radar.

risk     The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.

sensor     A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly. (in biology) The structure that an organism uses to sense attributes of its environment, such as heat, winds, chemicals, moisture, trauma or an attack by predators.

Singapore     An island nation located just off the tip of Malaysia in southeast Asia. Formerly an English colony, it became an independent nation in 1965. Its roughly 55 islands (the largest is Singapore) comprise some 687 square kilometers (265 square miles) of land, and are home to more than 5.3 million people.

smart device    Some product or machine that can send information to and retrieve information from the internet, or that can be controlled via the internet, such as by using an app on a smartphone.

smartphone     A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.

society     An integrated group of people or animals that generally cooperate and support one another for the greater good of them all.

software     The mathematical instructions that direct a computer’s hardware, including its processor, to perform certain operations.

symptom     A physical or mental indicator generally regarded to be characteristic of a disease. Sometimes a single symptom — especially a general one, such as fever or pain — can be a sign of any of many different types of injury or disease.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

ubiquitous       (n. ubiquity) A term for something that is omnipresent — found essentially everywhere.

Wi-Fi   A wireless technology that networks various electronic devices (such as cell phones and laptop computers); it allows them to share the same modem for Internet connections by using radio waves.


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Journal: A.J. Brush, et al. Pervasive Computing Moves In. IEEE Pervasive Computing. April – June 2016. doi: 10.1109/MPRV.2016.40.