The Fading Line between Atoms and Bits

Roberto Saracco
September 9, 2014


We have already started, and in the coming years more and more “Things” will be connected to the Internet, creating what we sometimes call the Internet of Things (IoT). There will be things with embedded electronics that will be connected directly to the Internet; others will be connected to nearby 'Things' that act as a gateway to the Internet.

Yet more will not have any electronics embedded, like my couch, but will nevertheless be connected to the Internet through a “Thing” that can watch it and communicate information about it (like a security camera “watching” my couch in the living room).

The crucial point is that this connection between a Thing and the Internet is basically transforming the Thing’s Atoms into Bits. And in the Internet the applications and people connected to those bits will be able to see a mirror image of the Thing and exploit it in many ways. In this article we will see the implication of these links among atoms and bits, and how our interaction with IoT will require, and lead, to new paradigms where semantics will become as important as connectivity.

A trillion connected objects

Let’s talk about Crock-Pot and June. The first is a slow cooking pot and June is a bracelet. They have in common the fact that both connect to the Internet (to a smartphone that in turn can connect to the Internet, or to another device that can bridge, via bluetooth or WiFi, the object with the Internet.

Now you may wonder why you would connect a cooking pot or a bracelet to a smartphone. Crock-Pot and Netatmo (the makers of the pot and bracelet) will explain why (be aware of how the cooking is doing, be aware of your level of sun exposure). But this is not the point.

The point is that every possible device is getting connected to the Internet and once this becomes widespread I bet there will be thousands of ingenious people around the world who will be able to make sense out of it for you.

Connecting something to the Internet used to be expensive and made sense only if there was a very specific need for doing so. Not any longer. A communication chip can cost less than a dollar, and electronic identification can cost less than one cent. As communications become ever more pervasive the communication link (the distance to a gateway) gets cheaper also in terms of energy requirements. This brings communication electronics to any kind of device. As a matter of fact, energy requirements are getting so low that scavenging of ambient energy suffices in many cases, removing the need for a battery (thus further slashing cost).

Scavenging technologies come in many forms: they can leverage on vibrations (a sensor embedded in the tarmac can power itself from the vibration generated by passing vehicles), they can leverage on temperature differential (a band aid on your arm can exploit the difference in temperature of your skin and the surrounding air), they can exploit piezoelectric properties of materials (a pacemaker embedded in your chest can be powered by the breathing movements of your pectoral muscles), they can leverage on ambient radio frequency (like RFID tags).

By the end of this decade some predict more than fifty billion objects connected to the Internet (Cisco, Ericsson), others foresee over one trillion objects connected to the Internet (HP). That is a factor of 20! Well it really depends on how you view being connected to the Internet. If you consider as “connected” only those objects that have a direct connection to the Internet perhaps the lower figure is appropriate (although I would still consider it a bit on the low side) but if you also start considering as connected “things” that are communicating with cellphones (by the way inside a smartphone you have a compass, an accelerometer, a light sensor, a NFC sensor, a fingerprint sensor, two digital cameras, a SIM card: that already makes seven plus the cellphone itself; five billion smartphones in 2020 times eight already makes 40 billion things connected to the Internet!), or with other kinds of gateways (like a passing car, a beacon …) you see immediately that the one trillion figure is not out of range.

In the coming years we are likely to see electronics embedded in any kind of object (80% of toys today embed electronic components) and in a few more years any material being produced will embed electronics, be it tiles you lay on your floor or wallpaper on your walls (they already exist and I’ve seen them in a few hotel rooms), or pills you swallow; buildings as well as streets and light poles will embed electronics, cars already have 40% of their Bill of Materials (BoM) in electronics (and for top of the line cars the electronics BoM goes up to 60%).

We can take this for granted: electronics will be part of any object and that electronics will support connectivity. In those rare cases where no electronics is embedded in an object it will be probable that the object will be indirectly visible in the web through another object having “eyes” exploring its surroundings (such as security cameras: one in my living room will be able to detect that old fashioned couch that still doesn’t have an electronic fabric covering) and software will be able to identify them.

Atoms and bits

Each of these objects has a unique identity and connecting it to the Internet in a way makes it “exist” in the Internet. Its atoms are mirrored by bits in the web. This is interesting because it is so much cheaper to deal with bits than to deal with atoms. Rather than acting on the real object one could act on its mirror representation, only going back to the real object when absolutely necessary.

We could imagine our digital camera existing as a mirror copy on the web. On that mirror copy third party service providers may deliver services for better white balance. When we take a photo (in RAW) the photo is uploaded to the mirror camera on the web to be processed by these third party services and made available to all authorised users. After a few photos the mirror camera (using a third party service) can detect a trend and can advise the real camera about a few fine-tunings in exposure to make the next photos better.

Similar examples may be provided for cars, to optimise fuel consumption by synchronising the driving of several cars in an area. All the simulation may take place in the web space and each car is informed on the actions required.

This coupling of atoms with bit mirrors in the web, followed by a decoupling of the bits from the atoms to work on them independently, fosters the development of a web economy at less cost than the economy having to deal with atoms. And because of its lower (entrance) cost it is open to many more players. We have already seen the amazing development of apps (in the millions now) and of apps developers (in the hundreds of thousands). Expect more! I have recently received a request from a major “spaghetti” producer in Italy to study how to bridge their products with the web, how to make spaghetti become part of the web …

The Internet WITH Things

Let me close these ramblings by observing that once you have a substantial proportion of everyday objects mirrored in the web you can access them via the web. This is what I have been calling for a few years now the Internet WITH Things. Whilst the Internet of Things is an interconnection fabric used by things to connect with one another (with little involvement of humans) the Internet WITH Things is our Internet, the one we use today that becomes enriched by things. We are no longer restricted to connect to information (and services): we can connect to things, and this connection happens first in cyberspace (where it is easy to accomplish and cheap) and extends into the real world. To make this connection seamless, however, we need to step up and move into the semantic world, not just the semantics of the objects but semantics of ourselves as well. We will be able to ask Google “where are my keys” and in principle, since the keys are a thing and they are on the Internet I should be able to track them. However, the Google engine (assuming that is what we will turn to) will need to understand which keys we are talking about. Are they the ones to our home or the ones for the car or for a drawer in our office? The search engine will need to understand why we are asking such a question and that will require moving up the ladder, into the semantic space.

Cisco is talking about the Internet of Everything to highlight that everything will be connected via the Internet. I still find useful to distinguish the various hues of the Internet because that singles out the specific challenges, specific usages and lets us focus on specific business models which I believe will be the driving forces in the evolution, taking for granted that the required technology will be there.



Roberto SaraccoRoberto Saracco is the President of EIT ICTLABS Italy and Italy Node Director (European Institute of Innovation and Technology). His background is in math and computer science. Up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Future Directions Committee. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 11 books.