Billions of ordinary things - including farm cows, factory gear, pollution monitors and prescription-drug bottles - are being outfitted with microchips and linked by online networks in a technological transformation that some experts predict will be as profound as the Industrial Revolution.
The payoff of this so-called "Internet of Things" could be staggering, especially for tech companies, which already are jockeying to cash in on the trend. Research firm IDC predicts this shift will generate nearly
"This will be potentially the biggest business opportunity in the history of people," said
Indeed, the implications could be extraordinary and wide- ranging, affecting almost everyone on the planet in ways both big and small.
By outfitting the globe with billions of connected gadgets, experts foresee a world in which:
* More elderly people survive once-life-threatening accidents, because doctors and emergency responders will be alerted the moment their patients fall;
* Fewer planes will crash, because every part on every aircraft will be electronically monitored so they can be quickly replaced at the slightest sign of failure;
* And wines will get better, as vineyard operators will know precisely when their grapes have the perfect sugar concentrations for picking.
All this promises a huge windfall for tech corporations, especially those in three key areas.
Because microchips are essential for smart gadgets, for example, a number of companies that make the circuits are expected to profit enormously.
Another key area is computer networking gear, such as the routers, switches and other equipment sold by giant
Software companies also are expected to benefit, because their coded instructions are essential for telling computerized gadgets what to do and making sense of the vast trove of data they'll generate. Insurance companies, for instance, are using data gathered by automobile sensors to identify high-risk motorists and adjust their rates accordingly, "based on the amount of driving they do, their driving habits, and even where they drive and park," noted
Other companies angling for a share of this business are
At least 10 billion devices - many of them phones - already are tied to the Internet, up from 200 million in 2000, according to
In addition, cows in
Even our daily cup of coffee will be affected. In October,
But that's just the start. Driven by cheaper chips and smarter software to run the Internet, IDC estimates that the population of Web-connected things will grow to 212 billion by 2020, with about 30 billion devices smart enough to operate without human control.
Predictions about how much of an economic boost the Internet of Things will generate vary widely, too. Although
Another study by
Calling the trend "much like the industrial revolution" of the 18th and 19th centuries - when mechanized manufacturing made mass- produced goods possible and residents in rural areas flooded into cities - GE's study added, "We are at the cusp of another wave of innovation that promises to change the way we do business and interact with the world of industrial machines."
Every facet of society is expected to be transformed by the Internet of Things, from our ability to better protect the environment, boost farm production and get early warnings of structural weaknesses in bridges and dams to enabling people to remotely control their lights, sprinkler systems, washing machines and scores of other gadgets at home.
Noting that "the potential is huge" for businesses, Morgan Stanley analysts concluded in a recent report that consumers also will benefit from having billions of connected gadgets "making our lives easier."
But not everyone is so sanguine. Besides the potential privacy and security implications of all these devices shuttling information about people and businesses across the Internet, another concern is what might happen if the machines fail to function properly.
Warning of the potential for glitches, a study by the
eye on the sky
It only takes one faulty part to cause catastrophic malfunction on an airplane. If microchips are fitted to all those parts, the result could be fewer crashes.
the right brew for you
on the moooove
It's not all about keeping your ducks in a row. Ranchers in
ripe for the times
Expect wines to improve in the future, as new technology will alert vineyard operators as to when their grapes have the perfect sugar concentrations for picking.