I, Network: The Present And Future Of Humans As Network Nodes – Part 1

December 28, 2017
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Increasingly, we are the network. Some recent news stories and feature articles demonstrate this and illuminate the present and future capabilities of humans as important network nodes.

Of course, humans have been an integral part of networks for decades. Cavepeople formed social networks and even supported them with primitive technology like fire and cave painting. However, emerging technologies are poised to increase and intensify the relationships between networked individuals.

Image Credit: Steve Mann/WearCam

The CORMORAN Project is an interesting new French research effort coordinated by CEA-Leti. The project is examining how wearable sensors can go beyond their current role of solitary data collection devices to become routers that actively pass data to each other, both within a single network and between networks, as well as to applications that aggregate and act on the data. CORMORAN researchers are connecting wearable sensors to link humans in what they call Wireless Body Area Networks (WBANs). A WBAN can be established between sensors located on one individual or across many people. The goal is to use low-power wireless technologies and networking protocols to enable “cooperative communication” between the various sensors in the WBAN and between one or more WBANs.

Kevin Fitchard imagines some of the potential, practical uses of a distributed, ad hoc WBAN in this article on GigaOM.com.

In a busy airport or train station, proximal location-based services could route departing passengers en masse to their proper gates or trains or arriving passengers to the proper baggage claim. City planners could use the technology to track and manage the flow of pedestrian traffic, and emergency agencies could use it to coordinate the evacuation of a building. Sociologists could use it to study group behavior, and game designers and movie CGI could use it to digital map crowd movement.

Undoubtedly, there are many more potential uses for WBANs, including helping people find each other in anticipated crowds such as a seat-less, outdoor concert audience or in an ad hoc, disorganized group of people, such as those at the site of a natural disaster. WBANs will augment, and in some cases supplant, the sensors in mobile computing devices that we currently use to support these and other use cases.

 

Machine Networks

When we hear the term ‘network’, we still tend to think of interconnected communications and computing devices, despite the current spotlight on social networks. Over the course of history, we have successfully networked many such machines, including telegraph terminals, telephones, radios, and mainframe and desktop computers. More recently, we have connected mobile communication and computing devices – smartphones and tablet computers – with each other and the cloud.

The next step in this evolution is to connect sensor-bearing machines, whose original purpose has nothing to do with communication or computation, with each other. This is already happening and is frequently referred to as ‘The Internet of Things’ (despite the fact that many of these networks are formed using wireless technologies, not the Internet.)

IBM IBM‘s ‘Smarter Planet’ and General Electric General Electric‘s ‘Industrial Internet’ initiatives are fairly well-known examples of the use of sensors to collect data from individual machines into composite datasets. These ‘big data’ collections are then analyzed to gain insights about the operating performance of individual machines, as well as their effect on other nodes in the network.

As Bill Wasik points out in his article “Welcome to the Programmable World” in the June 2013 (21.06) edition of Wired, most networked machines currently do not have the capability to communicate with, or directly influence, each other. Creating those capabilities and managing them in a programmatic manner is the next evolutionary wave in machine-to-machine networks.

The Wired article mentions some initiatives under way to create the protocols necessary for machines to communicate with each other, including the AllJoyn project led by Qualcomm Qualcomm and the Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) Technical Committee convened by OASIS. Wasik also highlights a start-up company, SmartThings, which has built a networking hub that translates existing machine communication protocols (e.g. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Smart, and ZigBee) into a mutually-understandable language. The SmartThings Hub will also be able to accommodate other protocols as they emerge.

SmartThings is going way beyond translating protocols to help sensors-equipped machines communicate. They also sell many of the different types of sensors that can be attached to everyday machines and appliances. Examples include motion and vibration detectors, sensors that detect an object’s state (i.e open or closed), moisture sensors, and multi-function sensor. SmartThings also offers a mobile application with which individual sensors can be controlled, either remotely or on-premises.

Things get really interesting in machine-to-machine networks when developers create what SmartThings calls SmartApps, which automate the if/then interactions between two or more sensors. For example, a SmartApp that controls an irrigation system’s control box (itself physically networked with and controlling individual sprinkler heads) can determine how frequently and for how long the system should run, based on data collected from on-site moisture sensors, as well as from historical and forecasted data on weather conditions pulled from the cloud. This is the “Programmable World” that Wasik envisions as the zenith of machine-to-machine networks and networks of intermingled machines and people.

 

Mixed Networks

What happens when worlds – well, networks – collide? When the social graph meets the physical one. We can image networks in which machine and human nodes interact, but we really don’t have to, because they exist now.

SmartThings CEO and Co-Founder Alex Hawkinson has networked the corporate office and his house by putting multiple sensors in both locations and letting them communicate through the SmartThings Hub. He and his colleagues have also created SmartApps that programmatically control interactions between the various networked machines and appliances in those locations. If Hawkinson leaves the office, the SmartSense Presence sensor he wears triggers a SmartApp to send a predefined text message to his wife, letting her know he’s on his way home. If he is the last person to leave the office, the doors lock themselves behind him, the lights are turned off, the temperature setting of the thermostat is lowered and a security system is enabled, all automatically. As he pulls into his driveway at home, the presence sensor he wears signals his garage door to open. If no one is at home, his arrival triggers sensors in the house to turn on predefined lights and the HVAC system, as needed. A human interacting with and directing state changes to several networked machines, without lifting a finger!

 

More to Come

In the next post on this blog, we’ll consider in more detail how humans will become part of mixed networks and what else they might do once they’ve joined. We’ll also touch on the potential privacy and security issues that are created by this level of networking. A following post will get to our main area of interest and examine how programable, mixed networks of sensors might effect business as we know it.

Article source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryhawes/2013/06/05/i-network-the-present-and-future-of-humans-as-network-nodes-part-1/

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