Patent issues and the ‘internet of things’

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By Paul England and Kathleen Fox Murphy

The ‘internet of things’ (IoT) is a term coined by Kevin Ashton of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His explanation of the IoT serves as a working definition: ‘People have limited time, attention and accuracy — all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things — using data they gathered without any help from us — we would be able to track and count everything and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling and whether they were fresh or past their best.’

In other words, the IoT is the idea of everyday objects informing and being informed about other objects systematically, via connection and exchange of information over the internet. It is in its infancy at present, but if the theory is borne out the implications of the IoT on everyday life are very great. It will, in the words of Cisco chief executive John Chambers, ‘change the way people live, work and play’. Indeed, there is no shortage of examples put forward of things the IoT could do, including real-time price adjustment for supermarket customers based on their particular shopping habits, monitoring car rentals, managing haulage logistics and optimising manufacturing processes according to demand and cost and supply of materials.

One attractive application of the IoT is in traffic control. Imagine a system in which the Highways Agency, automated cars (a technology already being tested), service stations, weather stations, local town traffic systems and even garages for repair are connected by the internet. Each feeds in information about its status to the appropriate protocols on the internet so that the others can respond accordingly. A passenger starting in London could set out for Edinburgh and be guided in real-time according to traffic jams, road works, the best-price diesel (and whether the diesel pumps are working), the effect of the weather on the road, who has a replacement wing mirror in stock and which service station still has cheese sandwiches available for lunch…

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