In 1990, Jun Murai, at the time an associate professor at Keio University in Tokyo, made a prediction in an article in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. When asked what the future of computer systems would look like, he described a world where, on one level there would be a network, on a second level computers and on a third, outer layer the human brain — all interconnected and communicating but being powered by the human mind. Murai’s comments made such an impact that among the people who began to contact him he received an odd visit from one woman who said she now knew the source of the voice she heard in her head!
She had clearly been imagining things, but Murai — who was the first person in Japan to connect a computer to what we now know as the Internet (earning him the moniker “father of the Internet in Japan”) — is likely to be the best person to talk to should such a situation arise.
At the Internet of Things 2010 Conference, held in Tokyo last week, Murai — who is now Dean, Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Keio — sat down with The Japan Times to give his prediction for the next 20 years of the Internet.
“We are still not completely achieving what I predicted,” he said, “brain connectivity is not here.” But the conference — which focussed on networking and the interconnection of the everyday objects with which we live — may be bringing us closer. According to Murai it is the connection among all the activities within society that is important; A world where our television, our phone and pacemaker are all communicating with each other.
While the technology for device networking is already well in place, the usage of the information we can extract from these devices is still in the very early stages. “The information is there, even if you are not using it,” said Murai. “One lit cigarette can be detected from space; the cigarette has no communication device in it but it can be detected by networked sensors.” A large focus of the conference, and of Murai’s research, is how can we utilize that kind of data. As he sees it, exploring new ways of harnessing this vast information network will be what drives the Internet in the next 10 to 20 years.
“We have many sensors around us gathering data, and a single computer cannot process it all,” explained Murai. He believes we are leaving an Internet space represented by users “proactively generating, activating, and requesting the data” and moving into a more passive relationship with the network — one in which data will be “collected and processed from all things around us without our interaction.”
To grasp the kind of world that Murai envisions, you have to look no further than the Nike+iPod sensors some runners use in their sneakers. These silently gather data on jogging patterns, which can be uploaded over wireless home networks to Nike’s website without the user having to do anything. It is a world where data is gathered, processed and presented as you go about your normal life. “The way we compute the data will be the future of the Internet. And in this there are a infinite number of possibilities,” Murai said.
Wireless communication and sensor technology have been around for some time but are rapidly increasing as more devices are able to communicate with each other. Some of the leading technology in this area has come from the transportation and automobile industry. “Did you know that KDDI mobile (au) was originally a division of Toyota before the mobile phone industry was even developed?” asks Murai.
The sensor technology within cars is some of the most advanced technology many people own. With the growth of electric vehicles, plugging your car into your home power source will also mean syncing it to your network, much as you sync your iPod. “You bring your car into the garage, connect it to your home network and it can be a control point, because the vehicle can be a storage device for electric power and also for data.” Data that is gathered silently as we go about the course of day.
Today it is possible to browse Yahoo! maps on your TV and to produce a perfect driving route with your car-navigation system based on real-time traffic data in Tokyo. Soon, using the Internet of Things, your TV will download historical traffic data from your car and crunch that information with data gathered from 200 other cars in your city to generate the ideal traffic route and show you on your TV before syncing it to your car in the morning.
This kind of networked computation means solving complex problems faster than was ever possible before, and this will have all kinds of benefits. According to Murai, one area that will see a lot of change over the next 10 years due to the Internet of Things will be medical and health care.
At the moment we are able to improve health care through the analysis of DNA and molecular data. In the future we will have connected devices and the data they generate will help pinpoint the causes of disease. “There are always reasons why we have a sickness, but it’s still mysterious why someone has cancer or has a specific disease.” Using connected devices we can gather and compute all kinds of geographic, agricultural and environmental data. Which in turn may help us identify specific causes of disease. “We currently have an infinite number of possible causes, but in utilizing the data collected to find the similarities and the relationship between cause and result, that’s going to be instantly effective in terms of medical care,” Murai predicted.
“A serious issue in Japan is our aging society, with elderly people alone at home,” Murai noted. “Even if they are living with family members, those family members have to go out to work, so the elderly remain alone at home — this is why the home networked environment is important.” While this isn’t specific to Japan, it will be one of the major issues facing the country in the next 10 to 20 years, he said.
Murai argues this will be driven by commercial investment as well as strategic deregulation. Companies will find advances in this area to be very profitable. People will pay a lot to stay in good health. Yet despite the obvious need for the embrace of such technology in Japan, there are still obstacles. Murai believes the most serious issue is government deregulation of health care and pharmaceuticals in relation to the Internet. “Any medical or professional care made remotely over the network is prohibited. That’s a difficult problem for Japan,” he said.
“Elderly people in the countryside can not order medicine online, so they have to go in person or get someone to help.” But now we have the concept of the Internet of Things combined with fast fiber-optic connections to the home, why shouldn’t a doctor be able to check up on a patient via a video-streaming channel broadcast to your home TV? Murai argues that with such abundant technology we have to look closely at issues such as caring for Japan’s aging society. “We have to combine the Internet of Things and advanced technology with solutions for the future of society,” he insists.