At some point in the next decade, machine to machine communications on the internet will exceed those made by humans.
When exactly this will occur is not known, some observers claim 2015, others pick 2020. Perhaps with good reason with the mobile company Ericsson predicts that by 2020 there will be 60 billion machines connected to the internet and talking to each other.
It is a phenomenon that has gone largely unnoticed by legislators and the public who are generally unaware that anything other than them is using the internet. Why should anything else want to? The answer is simple, and it is that the development of the internet has only just begun.
Stage two of the internet is the harvesting and exploitation of knowledge that the internet makes possible and this does not just mean by us.
Since 2000 researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the UK telecoms giant BT have been working on ideas involving the ‘internet of things’ – the incorporation of chips carrying unique internet addresses into every conceivable device from dogs to lamp-posts and cars to food packaging.
It is a revolution that has mainly come about because of the explosion of mobile devices that can be used as transmitters and receptors and ready access to high speed broadband. The potential is huge. The telecoms company Cisco claims that the wireless network operators have yet to realise “the full potential of their communication infrastructure assets. Unforeseen innovations will be developed, giant organizations will fall, changes will occur, and fortunes will be made.”
Already our critical national infrastructure – telecoms, utilities and transport are all controlled by machines which communicate with each other.
According to Steve Wallage, managing director of Broadgroup Consulting – a market research group that advises the datacentre industry which sits at the heart of the machine to machine communication phenomenon – a glimpse of what is going to happen can be gauged by the move in Japan to put the nation’s fifty million dogs online by chipping them so that their owners can know exactly where they are, a simple move that in itself will create a new industry as the chips report to the mobile phones of the dog’s owners.
“We have already seen this with the development of application like surveillance cameras and the tracking of parcels but we are going to see the development of a lot more useful applications in areas like the environment, safety, health, transport and the slightly more outlandish ones such as the chipping of pets.
“In many ways the only barriers to where this can go are cultural, legal, regulatory and almost imagination rather than any technical reasons,” said Wallage, whose datacentre industry is set to receive process and store all of the flood of new data generated by the machines.
The excitement in the IT industry is palpable. One recent paper from Cisco talks of the combination of technologies now possible.
“The resulting solution is determined using sensors, radio frequency identification (RFID) devices, and data mining to capture data on a customer’s assets, identity, or status that can indicate an anomaly that may be a business opportunity or threat.
“A specific set of ruled engine and workflow identity reviews specify an automatic or human course of action to respond to the anomaly, using links to initiate actions to mitigate the threat or capture the opportunity.”
Sensors will be everywhere. Via smart meters inside our homes they will be able to know exactly where we are, and what we are doing at any time by using a combination of mobile data and information on power usage.
In our cars, they will know where we are going because sat-navs are in constant communication with machines to ensure the connection; they will know how fast we are going because they will be constantly working on the car engine to ensure optimum performance, even when we are braking due to direct contact with the automatic braking system via sensors.
We can join in ourselves, as just like the Japanese dogs, sensor technology is already available via Bluetooth enabled intelligent underpants and bras that connect to our phones to keep tabs on our health and broadcast that information back to those monitoring us. Multi-national companies such as Phillips are already leaders in remote health monitoring.
Sensors can even be placed within our bodies with some US companies already having developed chips that can go into people for health diagnosis.
“It is conceivable that an ambulance can come to you before you even know you are ill,” said Wallage.
Including such sensors in food packaging will also usher in the much trumpeted intelligent fridge. A device will know what is in the fridge, how quickly it is likely to go off and via connection with your health sensors develop a diet for you and self-order food from the supermarket based on your preferences and what is ‘good for you’.
Now the machines are both maintaining and fine-tuning themselves and ordering components.
This world – while attractive to some – is profoundly worrying others as they are saying that not only are the machines spying on us but that they are taking away our self-determination, a process that occurred with no debate on whether it is desirable or not.
“There are some issues to be worked out around privacy and how much information we want to give to third parties,” said Macario Namie, vice-president of Jasper Wireless, which among other things connects up Heineken beer kegs so they wirelessly provide information on the condition of the beer within them and Coke machines that self-order their own stock.
“The technology is the easy part. There are broader issues on who pays and how much do we want to allow.”
With the recent revelations surrounding Prism which have seen the US National Security Agency and the UK’s GCHQ caught monitoring the world’s internet traffic using artificial intelligence systems that to use Cisco’s words: “can indicate an anomaly….specify an automatic or human course of action to respond to the anomaly…to initiate actions to mitigate the threat or capture the opportunity,” such privacy worries are seen as very real.
The emergence of this trend known as ‘big data’ means companies can overlay information on health, area, lifestyle and buying habits and decide on our levels of health insurance and use driving data to fine-tune our car insurance premiums.
The NSA and GCHQ may be the least of our worries.
Yet according to Professor Kevin Warwick, author of the book ‘March of the Machines’ and head of cybernetics at Reading University, the threat is from the technology itself, already says Warwick 30% of the buying decisions in the City of London are made by computers that are buying shares based on incremental prices differences around the world.
“The computer can make a decision on whether to buy a stock that can make a company go out of business and that can then collapse an industry in a country. If you think that one company is part of the supply chain in the coffee industry that can mean that the coffee industry relocates because an essential component of the industry is not there.”
A scenario Warwick states is even more worrying because we are not able to model every scenario that is likely to happen, citing ‘Black Monday’ as an example – when the recently introduced computers in the City of London triggered a selling frenzy that created a spiral resulting in the loss of huge amount of money on shares.
Warwick says this has particular implications when machines are given the power to order their own components, potentially allowing them to launch a ‘parts race,’ like Black Monday, a scenario hitherto unenvisaged that could then order parts and create an artificial industry boom in Warwick’s words “a feedback loop”.
That can even be engendered by criminals, by attacking the computers reporting data back to the system-hackers, said Warwick.
It is a world where we are at the mercy of the data in it and anyone who can interfere with our data can have profound implications for us.
Even more concerning Warwick says is the development of the ‘ultimate machine’ – the military drone – which uses a huge amount of mach
By 2015 the US is planning to have robots making up as much as 30% of its armed forces a decision Warwick says has put decision making in the machine’s hands.
“The offensive drones that we are hearing about are autonomous weapons systems. Each of them has around six missile systems on board that drones can make a decision on whether to fire or not to fire. “Nowadays the drone is more and more flying itself and making the decision on what it will do, the human is now only there as the over-ride and often they will not do that because they are scared about making a poor decision because they become reliant on the machine.”
On the battlefield or on a walk in the park, artificial intelligence is in the ascendancy. Author Bryan Appleyard, in his book ‘Aliens – why they are here’ reflects that robots and smart devices are ‘aliens’ on Earth and may one day outsmart us. He sums up the new reality in a telling phrase:’
“On the internet, nobody knows that you’re a dog.”
FI background on military drones: