Imagine things like doorknobs, toasters and lightbulbs communicating with each other in a network that far exceeds anything we know today. The concept, often referred to as ubiquitous computing, isn't new. What's new is that technologies are now emerging to make it happen sooner than many of us imagine.
That is the key message of a report, The Internet of Things, which was presented on Thursday at WSIS, the World Summit on the Information Society, in Tunis.
The report points to four key technologies, all at advanced stages, that will enable ubiquitous network connectivity: RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, sensor, embedded intelligence and nanotechnology.
In this new world, for instance, clothes embedded with chips will communicate with sensor-equipped washing machines about colours and their suitable washing temperatures, while bags will remind their owners that they have forgotten something.
The result will be billions of new internet 'users' in the form of objects that will push humans into the minority as generators and receivers of net traffic.
"There are challenges, such as standards and governance of these resources, but we're moving toward a world in which the many things around us will soon be communicating with each other without any interaction from us," said Lara Srivastava, telecommunications policy analyst at the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and the presenter of the report at a news conference in Tunis.
Machine-to-machine communication, already happening today, will gain substantial traction over the next few years, she added.
At a panel discussion, MIT Media Lab chairman Nicholas Negroponte spoke of his vision of an entirely new networked world, far more ubiquitous than the network of computers that we now have linked to the internet. "Things will play an important role in the internet themselves," Negroponte said. "The future is a meshed network of things. Objects will speak to other objects via other objects."
A big advantage of a meshed network, according to Negroponte, is that all these connected, embedded devices will be able to co-operate and help each other. "Failure won't be as binary," he said.
A similar view is held by Jonathan Murray, vice-president and chief technology officer for Microsoft's EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) region. "Software will make these devices smart and able to communicate end to end," he said. "In this new world, it's not about personal computing but about community computing and sharing information."
Despite all the benefits such a ubiquitous network society could bring, John Gage, chief researcher and director of the science office at Sun Microsystems, warned of "the very deep implications" of this new world. He pointed to the ability of technology to gather increasingly quantities of information about us.
"Every Google search you do is retained forever," Gage said. "And look at how RFID tags can track your location. When identity and location structures overlap, we're no longer anonymous."
A big concern, according to Gage, is that certain groups, such as the police, are predestined to want to know everything. "So privacy: get over it. We're going to become a different kind of society," he said.
Governance could also be a challenge in such a massive peer-to-peer network, Gage said.