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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 November 2005, 10:24 GMT
UN predicts 'internet of things'
By Elizabeth Biddlecombe

World leaders at the UN summit
World leaders are in Tunis to discuss the net and development
Changes brought about by the internet will be dwarfed by those prompted by the networking of everyday objects, says a report by a UN body.

The study looks at how the use of electronic tags and sensors could create an "internet of things".

The report by the International Telecommunications Union was released at the UN net summit in Tunis.

Thousands of delegates are discussing ways of narrowing the technology gap between rich and poor.

"It would seem that science fiction is slowly turning into science fact in an 'Internet of Things' based on ubiquitous network connectivity," said the report.

"Today, in the 2000s, we are heading into a new era of ubiquity, where the 'users' of the internet will be counted in billions and where humans may become the minority as generators and receivers of traffic."

Global involvement

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), sensors, robotics and nanotechnology will make processing power increasingly available in smaller and smaller packages so that networked computing dissolves into the fabric of things around us.

Golden Gate Bridge
Sensors check San Francisco's famous landmark for damage
The result could mean remote controls embedded in clothing, cars that alert their driver when they have developed a fault, managers who check on workers through the RFID devices embedded in their phones, and bags that remind their owners that they have forgotten something.

There are already examples of the technology in action. Tiny sensors are used to check San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge for structural damage and in coffee beans in Brazil for quality control.

Some of the benefits of this ubiquitous networked society include cheaper HIV treatments, more effective pharmaceutical controls and the purification of water using nanofilters.

Wealth creation

Unlike previous technological revolutions, some developing countries are already heavily involved in generating the science and products around these items.

"The traditional dominance of industrialised countries in scientific and technological innovations will weaken, in favour of less wealthy but no less tech-savvy nations," said the ITU report.

Things like privacy protection should become part of the design itself of the technology, even before it makes it to market
Lara Srivastava, ITU
Entitled The Internet of Things, the study said that the demands of multi-national businesses are forcing countries to adopt the new technology.

For example, the request by American retail giant Wal-Mart that its top suppliers use RFID tags has prompted Chinese manufacturers to adopt the technology.

The so-called Internet of Things is predicted to offer new business opportunities for all, from manufacturers to the telecoms industry, and create entirely new markets.

But it cold also have negative impacts, such as increased levels of electro-magnetic radiation generated by a world of communicating objects.

Everything monitored?

The ITU report cautions that the needs and wishes of human being must be kept central to all these endeavours and the public must be educated about their implications.

"Money talks, that's clear," said Lara Srivastava, of the Strategy and Policy Unit at the ITU.

"However we can make it talk less loudly if we put forward some of these issues early on.

"Things like privacy protection should become part of the design itself of the technology, even before it makes it to market."

To this end, governments, the private sector and other agencies must act from the outset to safeguard principles of informed consent, data confidentiality and security, according to the report.

"Society will have to deal with some very substantial issues," said Jonathan Murray, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft Europe.

"The rapid transition created by the network effect do not increase the digital divide."

Concerns about RFID technology have already led to consumer boycotts. In addition, the lack of technical standards for the component technologies could hinder its evolution.

But while it is hard to say to what extent it will develop, the past gives us a hint of the future, according to Ms Srivastava.

"It's safe to say that technology today is more pervasive than we would ever have imagined possible 10 years ago," she said.

"Similarly, 10 years from now things will continue in this general direction. That's what these new technologies are telling us."

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