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Beaches, brains and the Internet of Things

Beaches, brains and the Internet of Things

Jon Hall takes a tangential view of the world with a rumination on the connectedness of beaches, brains and the Internet of Things.

Not all beaches attract the sun, but when they do, they can attract sunbathers in droves, and space can become an issue. Whilst a lazy sunbather lying on a towel under a flowery parasol covers no more than a couple of square metres of sand, those that gambol in the surf or impress with beach volleyball may cover more like 25 square metres, and things can start to get busy. At times like this, it may be interesting to ruminate that taking around 4 metres depth of sand, and with your average grain of sand being a tiny 0.7mm cubed – allowing for gaps – that’s about 100 billion grains per active bather.

By coincidence, that’s approximately the number of neurons packed – much more tightly – into any one sunbather’s brain.

Of course, there’s a big, big difference between brain and beach. Whereas one grain of sand touches only a few others, each neurone in a human brain can count as many as 7000 neighbours: around 7000 tangled synaptic tendrils reach out from each neurone. Our beach is simply 1000 times less connected than a human brain. Even if each grain of sand was a neurone, the beach just wouldn’t compute. Although the brain is bombarded by big data every waking second, it copes – better, it understands; it learns; it creates – because it’s so connected.

The Internet of Things is usually seen as a collection of devices feeding data somewhere.  That’s a remarkable amount of data. What would it take to be truly remarkable? What would it take, for instance, for a network of weather sensors to predict the future? Well, to be as connected as the brain, each weather sensor Thing would need to be connected to about 10,000 other things.

Actually, connectivity isn’t the problem: the Internet of Things is connected to the Internet, so everything is, in theory, connected to everything else. All we need are the protocols.

So 10,000 connections – is that just small beer? In the UK alone, there are 25 million houses, each with a thermostat measuring temperature. Imagine a thermostat brain with 25 million neurones all connected. What could we learn from such a brain? Would we learn the best way to heat our homes? If we combined them with the weather sensors, would we be able to predict precisely how our energy needs increase as the weather changes?

And, here’s another exciting thing, what if we use all our sensors to predict how the Internet of Things should change to be more useful? Can the Internet of Things help us design The Internet of Sensible Things?

The Internet of Things is a great idea; we can generate data till the cows come home. But, by leveraging connectivity, just like a brain, we get more that the sum of its parts.

21st Century Stats


Originally launched: 1999.

Relaunched: January 1st, 2016.

Contributors: 70 contributors including futurists, engineers, teachers, writers, 23 doctors and 7 professors.

Created by: Clifford White.

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