For more than two decades, we’ve seen a succession of attempts to “connect everything”. One of the real fathers of the Internet, not Al Gore but Vint Cerf, once graced the cover of a geek magazine wearing a t-shirt with the now famous slogan: IP on Everything.
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He was and is right.  The destiny of every meaningful object in our lives is to have sensors, actuators some time, and always an IP stack for wired or wireless communication. Destiny is the operative word here, because we haven’t made as much progress as we hoped.  In 1986, Mike Markkula, one of Apple’s early backers and leaders, started Echelon.  The idea was to make chips so small and inexpensive they’d be everywhere, even inside a light bulb socket.  Thus, using the electric wires as the network, the Echelon chip would monitor the lamp and report the condition (healthy or soon to fail) of its filament, for example.  Same idea for industrial or home furnaces, security systems, meter reading and the like.  Here and there, we see experiments but no broad use, not in the sense of personal computers, WiFi, cell phones or GPS units.
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A not-too-helpful explanation combines cost and complexity: sound idea but it adds too much to the price of the devices to be so managed and the lack of standards combined with buggy technology still get in the way.  In other words, we don’t have a target date for managing all these devices from a browser on a PC or smartphone, anytime, anywhere in the world.
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But there is hope.  We have cars and cell phones. Today, a good bet is 90% or more of cars on the road have a cell phone inside.  Tomorrow, another good bet is 90% or more of these cell phones will have a GPS function.  Now, picture something not requiring much in terms of user action, something much simpler than interconnecting furnaces, lamps, alarm system sensors, personal video recorder, video cameras inside a house.  Picture all cell phones reporting their position all the time – anonymously.  I know, the latter clause is an issue, we read stories of government agencies secretly activating the GPS tracking function of phones for covert surveillance purposes.  But bear with me, let’s assume we can trust our government to keep position data anonymous.  Most of the time.  Now, the continuous position data are passed on to a benevolent company such as Microsoft, Yahoo! or Google, a company with server farms able to absorb and digest such volume of data.
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We have the data streams and the server farm.  What could be done for the private and public good?
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We can reduce traffic congestion, save energy and, most likely lives. For example, the servers can start by building a history of traffic patterns on freeways and smaller roads as well.  Then, detect variations, see congestion or even accidents: lots of cars here and little or no traffic downstream.  Imagine the little car positions dots on a map.  Push the results to a URL for a series or real-time maps allowing drivers to move around trouble, or, at least, to see how late they’re likely to be if they’re trapped.
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Of course, one will point out to today’s solutions monitoring traffic and reporting on the radio or feeding back information to navigation systems or to Google Maps.  But none have the fine granularity and real-time data offered by a swarm of GPS-enabled cell phones.
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Most of us won’t like the next step contemplated by government big wigs: with computers knowing where every car on the road is, wouldn’t it be more efficient, safer, to leave the driving to computers?
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Closer to our timeline: as we speak, the Netherlands is issuing RFPs (Request For Proposals) for a countrywide system where each car would have a transponder and each road would be equipped with sensors at suitable intervals.  No surprise: the idea is to reduce congestion, improve energy consumption and, this had to happen, price road use according to time of the day and other conditions.  Everything being connected, drivers are billed electronically and money withdrawn directly from bank accounts.
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I can’t wait to see what hackers will do with this. -- JLG
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