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These words and their peers have invaded the English lexicon with hardly a proper introduction. We know what they do, but not what they are. The Internet? What’s that? Some call it a “computer conversation.” But how exactly does the $1,399 LG Smart ThinQ Internet-connected kitchen range, which comes with its own smartphone app and touchscreen interface, participate in that conversation?

Close your eyes. Can you feel them? The radio waves? Hundreds, maybe thousands of them are passing through your organs and bouncing off your glasses. They’re like invisible light. Radio waves destined for GPS units stream down from geostationary satellites. Cell phones swallow radio waves emitted by cellular towers 20 miles distant, whereas a baby monitor or, say, the Internet-connected Good Night Lamp, radiates shorter, weaker radio waves that expand and dissipate like ripples in a pond.

That’s the Internet of Things, you see. It’s every inanimate thing with a radio wave transmitter or a fiber optic cable connection. Today, the IoT includes everything from the Belkin Wemo crock pot to the Google self-driving car and more practical gadgets like the ADT Pulse system and the Nest smart thermostat. Toys, mostly. But we have toyed our way to the tipping point. The machines may have come to save mankind.

A New World of Energy

Consider the humble thermostat, or the utility meter. Today, “smart” thermostats automatically learn your preferred heating and cooling schedule, and smart utility meters provide real-time billing and usage information. Go a step farther. Ecovent, a North American start-up company, pairs a smart thermostat with room motion monitors, room temperature sensors, and modulated old-work air vents to individually heat and cool each room as needed.

Don’t you see? For you, purchasing a Nest thermostat or Ecovent heating and cooling system is a convenience, maybe even a cost savings. For society, it’s a precious mouthful of fresh air. It could save millions of gallons of toxic refrigerant and eliminate billions of tons of carbon dioxide, particularly as air conditioning expands to the southern hemisphere.

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Tech to Protect the Environment

Many hope that the IoT will perform CPR on Mother Nature. Environmental sensors could monitor air and water quality, pundits argue. Technological advances have reduced the massive power demand for global Internet data centers. Real-time energy consumption data, like smart utility meters, can eliminate the need for “peaker plants,” often powered by coal, occasionally required to generate electricity during peak hours and seasons.

There are challenges, of course. Gadgets must develop longer lifespans. Currently, the average lifespan of a smartphone is 18-24 months. After that, the sensitive electronics, which often contain semi-precious metals, wind up in landfills. In other words, no iPhone36.

IoT devices like the Nest thermostat or Apple Watch are tempting. They are cheap, sleek, and do all our dirty work. We just push buttons. But the real revolution rides on the lowly Internet-connected sensor.

Consider, for instance, a forest fire in the Colorado Rockies. Remote forest smoke detectors beam information over the airwaves and paint a real-time map of the fire’s origin and pathways. They communicate with local traffic lights, which use pre-set algorithms to create safe highway detours around endangered zones. Volunteer firefighters receive automatic text alerts, and within mere hours, the forest fire has been surrounded.

The possibilities are endless. Supply chain control, marine pollution, commercial fleet tracking – all of these sectors could be revolutionized with the introduction of simple IoT sensors designed to generate Big Data, data that can be amassed and shared and targeted. Thousands, millions of radio waves would pummel and percolate through the atmosphere, carrying sine-wave conversations across the globe. That’s the tipping point. Tomorrow, that will be the Internet of Things.

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