Two years ago, I told you about the "Internet of Things" (IoT). Back then, there was a 73 percent chance you had never heard of it. That, at least, was the assertion by SOASTA, a leading mobile and cloud-testing firm. Its survey of American consumers found that "nearly three out of four (73 percent) Americans admit to being unfamiliar with the Internet of Things (IoT), technologies that connect 'smart' devices and everyday electronic objects to themselves and the Internet to share information and drive new applications. However, when the technology is explained, an overwhelming majority – 67 percent – say they are excited about the possibilities of IoT coming to consumer technology." Well, that was then – and this is now. The Internet of Things looms more prominently than ever, the prospects of the hyper-connected society it represents closer to reality than ever before.
Also in 2014, I described the major obstacles facing the establishment of the IoT. These include signaling (the fact that not all devices are capable of communicating with each other or of detecting the presence of one another on the same network) and security (because the more connected your devices become, the greater the possibility for security exploits). Security is the larger problem because of its broad scope. In the two weeks between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, 750,000 malicious emails (emails containing viruses, links to viruses, or other security threats) were sent by more than 100,000 household gadgets. Among those gadgets was an Internet-connected refrigerator. Internet-enabled appliances, which run operating systems like Windows or Android, can be co-opted by hackers' malicious code in the same way your computer or phone can be hijacked. Once taken over by the hacker software, the appliance is used to send spam or to mount denial-of-service attacks. A hacker who had co-opted multiple Internet-equipped refrigerators and garage door openers could use their combined power to inundate an Internet target with email or other malicious activity.
Given this, are you ready to plunk down $5,000 for a Samsung smart refrigerator? This week, the company unveiled its new Family Hub Refrigerator. According to Fox News' Aalia Shaheed, the refrigerator "will come complete with sensors, cameras, smart capabilities and a huge touch screen display. It also takes a picture of what's inside your fridge every time you close the door – meaning you'll always be up to date on how much milk and bread you have left. … You can remotely access the fridge's cameras in real time from any location through your smartphone, and also use the Family Hub to order groceries online through the new 'Groceries by MasterCard' smart fridge app. The 21.5-inch, 1080p display can also display family pictures and messages – bringing the age-old custom of magnetized photos into the future. And if the fridge didn't do enough already – it also comes equipped with technology to help track and monitor your family's eating habits."
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Are you old enough to remember the Xanadu Houses? These were a series of experimental homes built in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were futuristic (and wildly flammable) polyurethane foam structures that looked futuristic and featured then-cutting edge home automation systems. They quickly became tourist attractions and were, for their day, representative of what might one day become industry standard modular building techniques. Designer Roy Mason's vision was of a true smart home, much like the home Samsung no doubt believes its refrigerator will be built around. Computer intelligences would run everything from climate control to prescribing exercise regimens for residents based on the food they consume. Your breakfast of bacon and eggs could trip your smart home's cholesterol threshold and lead to your home computer demanding more sit-ups the following morning – at least according to one fictionalized conception of Xanadu featured in a popular teen science and science fiction magazine of the day. This is the interconnected future envisioned by proponents of the "smart home" concept, of which the Internet of Things and products like Samsung's Family Hub Refrigerator are integral and necessary components.
Xanadu proved to be ahead of its time. Most of the Xanadu houses built were closed and demolished in the 1990s (the last was razed 10 years ago). Their technology was out of date, and the homes suffered from mold and mildew problems when not properly maintained. Even the "futuristic" look of the bulbous foam structures seemed dated and weathered by then; what seemed cutting edge in the late '70s seemed quaint and even silly 20 years later. But while the Xanadu homes did not, in fact, represent the future of the American smart home, the industry itself continues to move forward, eager to make the IoT your children's future.
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There's a commercial motivation driving all of this, of course. It isn't just the dreams of futurists who would like to see us increasingly dependent on pervasive automation. One aspect of the IoT is that in order for all of these "smart" devices to connect and communicate, they have to have sensors. As Mark Hachman explains, more sensors mean more data, and more data mean more chips. This means more sales for companies like Intel.
Writing for PC World, Hachman explains that 10 years ago, "Intel's primary data source for its PC and server microprocessors were the people who used Intel's products. Today, those data sources are sensors connecting the Internet of Things, and Intel wants them everywhere." He goes on to describe several ventures and partnerships in which Intel is involved, all of them facilitating interconnectivity for the IoT. These range from clothing to sporting gear and even the burgeoning industry for civilian drones.
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A world dominated by interconnection, by pervasive technology, is potentially a wondrous place. It is also, at least potentially, a horrible one. Smart homes and the smart devices that power them will doubtless change the face of society for our children – in much the same way the Internet changed it for us. The only question is whether you and I will be able to live in that world without becoming as obsolete as Xanadu's polyurethane "future" homes did 20 years ago.
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