The Economist and the Evernet

Stephen DeAngelis

May 4, 2007

Last month I wrote a post on Ubiquitous Sensors and the Evernet. The “Evernet” is a term I borrowed from my colleague Tom Barnett. The Economist now has an article on what they call the coming wireless revolution [“When Everything Connects,” 26 April 2007]. There are still people alive who remember when the term “wireless” referred to what Guglielmo Marconi called wireless telegraphy — a radio receiver or transceiver. The Economist article begins with a flashback to the time when people would sit around a glowing wood covered “wireless” to hear their favorite entertainment or catch up on the news. Today, of course, the term “wireless” has a completely different meaning. The Economist, although it doesn’t use the term, describes the Evernet this way:


Just as microprocessors have been built into everything in the past few decades, so wireless communications will become part of objects big and small. The possibilities are legion. Gizmos and gadgets will talk to other devices—and be serviced and upgraded from afar. Sensors on buildings and bridges will run them efficiently and ensure they are safe. Wireless systems on farmland will measure temperature and humidity and control irrigation systems. Tags will certify the origins and distribution of food and the authenticity of medicines. Tiny chips on or in people’s bodies will send vital signs to clinics to help keep them healthy.”


The article identifies the differences between the computer era and the coming wireless era in this way:

 

The computing revolution was about information—digitising documents, photographs and records so that they could more easily be manipulated. The wireless-communications revolution is about making digital information about anything available anywhere at almost no cost. No longer tied down by wires and cables, more information about more things will get to the place where it is most valuable. For the moment, the mobile phone is stealing the show. It is evolving from a simple phone into a wallet, keychain, health monitor and navigation device. But as mobile-phone technology matures, even more innovation is taking place in areas of wireless that link things only metres or millimetres apart. For that, thank the cross-breeding of Marconi’s radio and the microprocessor.”


The first two pieces of the wireless revolution are already in place — small size and reasonable cost. The third piece — getting electrical power to these devices — is in the works claims the article. Once all three pieces are fitted, the revolution will begin.

 

Wireless brings countless benefits. … Devices and objects can be monitored or controlled at a distance. Huge amounts of data that were once impossible or too expensive to collect will become the backbone of entirely new services. Wireless communications should boost productivity just as information technology has. Imagine how wireless communications could change motoring. Carmakers are starting to monitor vehicles so that they know when to replace parts before they fail, based on changes in vibration or temperature. If there is a crash, wireless chips could tell the emergency services where to come, what has happened and if anyone is hurt. Traffic information can be instantaneous and perfectly accurate. They administer tolls based on precise routes. One American firm leases cars to people with bad credit who cannot get a loan, knowing that if payments are missed it can block the ignition and find the car to repossess it. British insurers offer policies with premiums based on precisely when and where a person drives.”


This all sounds interesting (to some it may sound too intrusive), but mining and correlating mountains of data may be the long pole in the Evernet tent. Enterra Solutions is working to develop processes that will help launch the wireless revolution by providing ways to sort through mountains of data to find what is important (like failing parts or the presence of a toxic substance), determine who needs that information, and get it to them in near real-time. Where applicable, automated rules will be able to initiate responses that can mitigate potentially harmful consequences much faster than can a human in the loop. This is exactly the kind of innovation that caught Esquire magazine’s attention and resulted in an article on The Age of Resilience last December that described the work we hope to foster at the Institute for Advanced Technologies in Global Resilience.


The Economist article observes that we are still in the gestation phase of the wireless revolution and there are a lot of challenges yet to be worked out.

 

Of course, plenty of work will be needed before wireless communications can realise their promise. The first obstacle is novelty. As is usual in the early days of a new industry, all kinds of proprietary systems abound, many of them built from scratch—rather as early computer hackers fiddled with their Altairs in the mid-1970s. Until common standards and protocols emerge for machine-to-machine and wireless sensor communications, costs will be a problem. It is not yet clear who will bang heads together to set standards. Today’s mobile-phone businesses may be too busy getting people to talk to bother much about talking machines. Sony Ericsson and Nokia, two giants of the mobile-phone industry, have in recent years sold their machine-to-machine divisions. Mobile operators see the new field as such a small part of their overall business that it gets relegated to the back-burner. That has left an opening for fleet-footed firms from computing, as well as industrial conglomerates, such as Samsung, Philips, Honeywell and Hitachi. Just this week, General Electric’s sensing division said it wanted to use wireless sensors in industries as diverse as drugs and petrochemicals. Government will play a crucial role, not least because radio spectrum will be in short supply. That makes it more important than ever that the airwaves are sensibly allocated according to the ability to pay. Special ‘reserves’ and unlicensed spectrum could be put aside for emerging technologies that lack financial or political clout. And politicians and business people would do well to keep an eye on the health risks of electromagnetic radiation. No serious evidence yet suggests it is a danger—but the nonsense over genetically modified foods shows how much a new technology needs popular approval.”


The Economist concludes by raising the specter of privacy violations (both official and criminal). It is an issue with which society must come to grips. As with all innovations, the article notes that no one can honestly predict how this new revolution will affect society. Some of the effects, it notes, will be frightening, while other effects will be simply amazing. The revolution may not be complete for half a century, but it will be an interesting 50 years to watch.