How many engineers does it take to change a lightbulb? Depends on whether or not that lightbulb is connected to Wi-Fi.
Lightbulbs, along with refrigerators, coffee makers, microwave ovens, baby monitors, security cameras, speakers, televisions, and thermostats have, in the past few decades, transformed from ordinary objects into conduits for the future. Embedded with sensors that see, hear, and touch the world around them, they can turn physical information into digital data. Collectively, these devices—and there are billions of them around the world—make up the “internet of things.”
Just about anything with network connectivity belongs to the internet of things. In the “smart home,” these internet-enabled gadgets liberate us from our chores, give us back some of our time, and add a dash of novelty to ordinary experiences. (“Alexa, turn on the disco lights.”) But the internet of things is about more than just using your voice to preheat the oven or using your phone to turn off the lights. The real promise of the internet of things is making our physical surroundings accessible to our digital computers, putting sensors on everything in the world and translating it into a digital format. Internet-connected objects could be the key to unlocking predictions about everything from consumer behavior to climate events, but those same objects could invite hackers into personal spaces and leak intimate data. Depending on who you ask, the growing internet of things either represents the promise of technology—the thing that will reinvent modern life as we know it—or that which will be our technological undoing.
The History of the Internet of Things
The dream of a sensory computer as the centerpiece of the smart home has occupied the popular imagination for at least half a century. Sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury and television shows like The Jetsons brought the automated house to life, and inventors began creating prototypes for exhibitions around the world, showing off ideas for self-cleaning homes and furniture that could move itself around for its occupants.
The net benefit of these gizmos was, for the most part, liberation from housework. At the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, Whirlpool created an exhibit called the “Miracle Kitchen”—a futuristic display meant to show what life in capitalist America was like. It included a dishwasher that cleared the table and a proto-Roomba to sweep the floors. “In America, we like to make life easier for women,” Richard Nixon said to Nikita Khrushchev, the President of the Soviet Union, in an apparent jab on the showfloor.
Most of the early smart home inventions used automatic controls, making it possible to turn something or off without lifting a finger. But they didn’t connect to anything else, and their functionality was limited. That would begin to change in 1983 when ARPANET, the earliest version of the internet, adopted the internet protocol suite (also known as TCP/IP). The protocol set standards for how digital data should be transmitted, routed, and received. Essentially, it laid the groundwork for the modern internet.
The first internet-connected “thing” to make use of this new protocol was a toaster. John Romkey, a software engineer and early internet evangelist, had built one for the 1990 showfloor of Interop, a trade show for computers. Romkey dropped a few slices of bread into the toaster and, using a clunky computer, turned the toaster on. It would still be a decade before anyone used the phrase “internet of things,” but Romkey’s magic little toaster showed what a world of internet-connected things might be like. (Of course, it wasn’t fully automated; a person still had to introduce the bread.) It was part gimmick, part proof of concept—and fully a preview of what was to come.
The term “internet of things” itself was coined in 1999, when Kevin Ashton put it in a PowerPoint presentation for Procter & Gamble. Ashton, who was then working in supply chain optimization, described a system where sensors acted like the eyes and ears of a computer—an entirely new way for computers to see, hear, touch, and interpret their surroundings.
As home internet became ubiquitous and Wi-Fi sped up, the dream of the smart home started to look more like a reality. Companies began to introduce more and more of these inventions: “smart” coffee makers to brew the perfect cup, ovens that bake cookies with precision timing, and refrigerators that automatically restocked expired milk. The first of these, LG’s internet-connected refrigerator, hit the market in 2000. It could take stock of shelf contents, mind expiration dates, and for some reason, came with an MP3 player. It also cost $20,000. As sensors became cheaper, these internet-connected devices became more affordable for more consumers. And the invention of smart plugs, like those made by Belkin, meant that even ordinary objects could become “smart”—or, at least, you could turn them on and off with your phone.