New wireless technologies will link not just people but lots of objects too.

Encuesta: TELECOMUNICACIONES – Un mundo de conexiones

From The Economist print edition

Las nuevas tecnologías inalámbricas van a conectar no solo a las personas, también a los objetos de uso cotidiano. Esto será tremendamente útil, dice Kenneth Cukier (en una entrevista que reproducimos here); pero llegar allí tiene todavía numerosos escollos.

by Belle Mellor

La radio tiene 110 años de existencia mientras que el microprocesador apenas si alcanza los 50. Ambas tecnologías han ido convergiendo y al sumarlas algo muy excitante está ocurriendo. Todos los beneficios del mundo de las computadoras -innovación constante, cortos ciclos y bajo precio – se han extendido a las comunicaciones inalámbricas.

Como resultado una miríada de aparatos separados se están conectando en red, desde los televisores y autos hasta las máquinas industriales y sobre todo las que se usan en agricultura. Pequeños aparatos de nano tecnología son colocados en el interior del cuerpo humano para realizar tareas útiles. La nueva tecnología permite el control a distancia, interconectar diversos aparatos, creando algo nuevo y más útil.

So far the mobile phone has been getting all the attention. Around 2.8 billion are already in use, with a further 1.6m being added every day. The phones themselves are improving at a cracking pace. Yet this boom is also spilling over into other areas of wireless communications, used for linking machines, sensors and objects. “Everybody talks about the emerging markets being the big opportunity for the cellular industry in the next few years, but in the longer run there are going to be a lot more devices talking to each other,” says Paul Jacobs, the boss of Qualcomm, which makes mobile-phone chips.

This year around 10 billion microprocessors will be sold, embedded in anything from computers to coffee-makers. The vast majority of them will be able to “think” but not “talk”: they will perform specific tasks but cannot communicate. But this is now starting to change. The cost, size and power requirements of wireless functions are falling rapidly, so some unlikely candidates are now being connected to networks. For example, bridges and buildings are being monitored for structural integrity by small sensors. Farmland is being watched and irrigation systems are being switched on and off remotely.

In years to come, wireless communications will increasingly become part of the fabric of everyday life. David Clark, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped develop the internet, believes that in 15 or 20 years’ time the network will need to accommodate a trillion devices, most of them wireless. To illustrate what that world might be like, Robert Poor, the co-founder of two wireless companies, Adozu and Ember, uses a modest example: light fixtures in buildings. If every one of them contained a small wireless node, people would not only be able to control the lighting more effectively but put them to many other uses too. If the nodes were programmed to serve as online smoke detectors, they could signal a fire as well as show its location. They could also act as a security system or provide internet connectivity to other things in the building.

Such applications are already being developed. For instance, Philips, an electronics firm, plans to introduce wirelessly controlled lighting systems for commercial buildings in around five years’ time. And its researchers are working on making networked light fittings capable of monitoring the objects throughout a building, tracking equipment in hospitals or preventing theft in offices.

These ideas have been floating around for years, variously known as “ubiquitous computing”, “embedded networking” and “the pervasive internet”. The phenomenon “could well dwarf previous milestones in the information revolution”, according to a 2001 report entitled “Embedded, Everywhere” by America’s National Research Council, part of the respected National Academy of Sciences. A report by a United Nations agency in 2005 called it “The Internet of Things”.

But now it is actually starting to happen. Even governments have taken notice. Japan and South Korea have incorporated wireless technology into national policies, their sprawling IT conglomerates marching in lockstep with the political leaders. The European Union and America (where defence money paid for many of the advances) have issued thick reports.

For all the excitement, it will be a while before machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and sensor networks become ubiquitous. Although the technology exists, different approaches do not as yet work well together. Unlike computer software, which can be deployed with a few mouse-clicks, each system still needs to be tailor-made. And the melding of communications and computing brings together two industries and engineering cultures that are generally at odds, slowing progress. Moreover, the business models to justify the time and cost of adding wireless services are embryonic.

Still, the general direction is clear. In the years ahead new wireless technologies will appear in a plethora of devices, much as computer chips did in the second half of the 20th century. This survey will explain how this will come about, and why it will not be easy.

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