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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 8:28 EDT

Machines and Objects to Overtake Humans on the Internet

November 17, 2005

Machines will take over from humans as the biggest users of the Internet in a brave new world of electronic sensors, smart homes, and tags that track users’ movements and habits, the UN’s telecommunications agency predicted.

In a report entitled “Internet of Things”, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) outlined the expected next stage in the technological revolution where humans, electronic devices, inanimate objects and databases are linked by a radically transformed Internet.

“It would seem that science fiction is slowly turning into science fact in an ‘Internet of Things’ based on ubiquitous network connectivity,” the report said Thursday, saying objects would take on human characteristics thanks to technological innovation.

“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,” it added.

Currently there are about 875 million Internet users worldwide, a number that may simply double if humans remain the primary users of the future.

But experts are counting on tens of billions of human and inanimate “users” in future decades.

They would be tied into an all pervasive network where there would be no need to power up a computer to connect — “anytime, anywhere, by anyone and anything”, the report said.

Remote computer-controlled household appliances are already appearing, as well as prototype cars with collision-avoidance sensors.

Mobile phones can be used as electronic train tickets while meat exports from Namibia or goods for US retail chain Wal-Mart are tagged with sensors to allow them to be tracked.

The ITU’s vision goes further, highlighting refrigerators that independently communicate with grocery stores, washing machines that communicate with clothing, implanted tags with medical equipment and vehicles with stationary or moving objects.

Industrial products would also become increasingly “smart”, gaining autonomy and the intelligence thanks to miniaturised but more powerful computing capacity.

“Even particles and ‘dust’ might be tagged and networked”, the ITU said.

“In this way the virtual world would map the real world, given that everything in our physical environment would have its own identity (a passport of sorts) in virtual cyberpsace,” the report forecast.

The trend is being fuelled by a small number of technological developments, including miniature radio frequency RFID electronic tags that allow immediate identification and tracking, and new sensor technology, as well as smart devices and nanotechnology.

While the report laid out economic opportunities, a huge expansion of the IT industry and innovation in a wide range of fields from health to entertainment, it also warned of a number of challenges, including privacy issues.

Some of the applications envisaged for emerging RFID tags are to replace human ID documents, track consumer habits, or banknotes.

The ITU said tighter linkages would be needed between those that create the technology and those that use it to cope with its forecast new world.

“In a world increasingly mediated by technology, we must ensure that the human core of our activities remains untouched,” the report concluded.