How the Internet of things could make the world safer and greener

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We’re currently in the early stages of the Internet of Things, the much-buzzed-about phenomenon when all objects in the world will be equipped with sensors or connected in some way, enabling items to be catalogued and represented virtually on the web.

Of course, the potential implications of this shift toward connectivity are numerous, particularly for the tech industry. But researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently discovered that the rise of the Internet of Things will have impacts that go far beyond Silicon Valley: It could pave the way to a safer, and more environmentally sustainable world.

Internet of Things — even stolen ones

This discovery by MIT was made somewhat inadvertently: During the summer of 2011, a team of researchers from MIT began studying what happens to used and discarded electronic devices with a project called “Backtalk.” To do this, the team developed and implemented two technologies to let electronics “self-report” their locations worldwide after they were tossed out.

But in November 2011, several months after the project got underway, Backtalk’s lab at MIT was burgled, and one of the of the laptops used to record images was stolen along with other equipment. But thanks to the new tracking technologies developed for the Backtalk project, the laptop was not lost for long: Since the machine was equipped for image capturing, photos of the thieves were sent back to the Backtrack researchers, and the laptop’s GPS reported its exact location so that police could track it down.

Carlo Ratti, the director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT that conducted the Backtrack project, said in a press release this week that the “completely unexpected” occurrence had an interesting lesson:

β€œIt shows us what might happen in a utopian/dystopian Internet of Things world, when every object on our planet will be addressable and trackable, as scholars have been predicting for many years.”

Landfills won’t be a dirty secret anymore

While this implication of the impending Internet of Things sounds like happy news to most of us (assuming, of course, that most of us aren’t thieves) it seems that it could also bring a level of guilt to average people in the first world around how they currently think about physical things. If everything is traceable, that means that we’ll be more aware of the entire life cycle of our stuff — even once we’ve given it up willingly.

This means that when, say, the laptop bag you gave to Goodwill ultimately ends up in the landfill a few weeks later (like a reported 40 percent of things that go to Goodwill do) it will be hard to ignore your role in polluting the world. The old green axiom of “You can’t throw anything away, because there is no such thing as away” will become very real to everyone. Assaf Biderman, the co-director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, put it like this:

“The large volume of electronic refuse currently being produced around the globe presents both a toxic liability and a potentially valuable resource. One of the consequences of digitizing our everyday objects is that the data they capture provides us with new information about the impact of our actions – from what we consume to the waste we discard, and to the things we give away.”

Ideally, this will make more people become more conscious of not acquiring too much junk in the first place, and actually adhere to the first two parts of that other old green mantra to “reduce, reuse and recycle.” As the world gets more populated, it would be a very good thing if we all became a little more conscious of our consumption habits — and it looks like the Internet of Things might help make that happen.

The Internet of Things will also play a crucial role in making systems and the consumption of resources much more efficient, too. Putting a chip and wireless connection on lighting, heating and cooling systems, power grid devices and cars could lead to better management of resources, including energy, electricity, heating and fuel.

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