Jerry the Bear — an internet-connected toy that teaches children about their type 1 diabetes.

Credit: Sproutel

Innovation Hub 1/5/13: The Internet of Things

January 3, 2013


Just think of this familiar scenario — a friend wants to drop something by your house while you’re at work, but she can’t because you’ve locked the door.

It’s an everyday problem, and it inspired Sanjay Sarma, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, to create a solution.

What if you could use sensors like these to control your house — everything from the temperature to the locks on the doors — from your cell phone?
Photo Credit: cj.sveningsson / Flickr Creative Commons

Sensing a Problem

Sarma put sensors in his house that would allow him to unlock his front door from a remote location using a cell phone. But once he had the sensors in place, he found he could use them for a plethora of other things, like tracking motion and temperature to automatically turn off lights and change the thermostat when no one was at home. More pieces of technology are communicating with one another than ever before — experts call this phenomenon “the Internet of things.” 

Sarma’s house may not be the typical white-picket American home yet; he admits that the cost of putting sensors in your home might be prohibitive for the average family today. But the cost of automating a home is plummeting, and Sarma can imagine a demand for this technology with a decreased price tag. 

“We can use [the sensors] to be very aggressive with things like conserving energy and turning lights off, and so on,” he explains. “You can do some fantastic stuff with sensing. The problem was that sensors were hard to connect up, and that’s what has changed — and now we can do it.”

A pill bottle that reminds you to take your medicine.
Photo Credit: Vitality

Creating Practical Solutions

The use of sensors and technology isn’t always futuristic. In fact, ease and practicality were in David Rose’s mind when his company, Vitality, created a pill bottle that could tell if a patient was taking his medicine. Rose saw that pharmaceutical companies were losing $80 billion a year in prescribed pills that are not taken, and that health insurers lost $300 billion through hospitalizations that could be prevented through proper use of prescribed medication, and he thought of a simple solution.

“[I thought] let’s just put a little intelligence, a little wireless chip that talks to the Cloud, into the pill bottle cap,” remembers Rose. “It could not only pulse with light, and play cute ringtones, but also send you and a loved one an email at the end of the week showing the days you did or did not take your medication.”

The solution may have been simple, but it was also staggeringly effective — in a clinical study, the wireless pill bottle was shown to get people to take their medication 95 percent of the time. That’s a statistic that caught the eye of pharmaceutical companies, like Novartis, and even health care insurance companies, who now distribute medication in Rose’s smart bottle.

The Internet of things can also democratize information — Rose’s other company, Ambient Devices, has created a smart orb that can tell if you are losing money on energy long before you get your heating bill at the end of the month. Making information easily digestible was also the motivation behind Jerry the Bear, a stuffed animal that helps young children with type 1 diabetes understand their diagnosis.

“[The bear] has a little monitor in its stomach, and the kids can check its glucose levels, they can feed him a snack and see how that affects it,” explains David Stephenson, a principal of Stephenson Strategies. “It’s really empowering the kids…they’re no longer the victims of [diabetes]. They’re taking care of Jerry.”

Should we worry about how much our devices know about us?
Photo Credit: khawkins04 / Flickr Creative Commons

With Great Intelligence Comes Great Responsibility

Of course, as the intelligence of our things increases, so do fears that these things might become a little too smart. We may not need to fear that our computers will outsmart us, like HAL in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but anxiety about the increasingly public nature of private information is justified.

Take Vitality’s pill bottle — if you don’t take your medicine, does the bottle only have a right to remind you, or can it remind your doctor as well? Progressive Insurance offers drivers a sensor that can tell if they speed — but should drivers or insurers be able to control the amount of information the company gets?

Sarma believes it is essential for consumers to control both their own information and the ability to discard it. He calls for a “data shredder in the sky” that would allow individuals to permanently remove data stored in the Internet Cloud — the way that someone can destroy paper documents in a shredder.

But Sarma also thinks that we should relax about the increasing intelligence of our devices. After all, he explains, much of our information is already public. Security cameras and highway toll pavilions, for example, could track an individual’s movement long before the tracking feature on an iPhone could.     

“The fact is, this has already happened,” Sarma argues. “So it isn’t a matter of, ‘can we stop it?’ All we can do is get ahead of it and shape it.” 

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