The Internet is about to take things to the next level. At least, that's what David Cameron thinks. The Prime Minister announced this week that the Government will be investing £45m in the development of the next phase of online technologies; the Internet of Things.
This has led a lot of people to ask; what exactly is the Internet of Things? Is it really worth investing in? And where does that investment need to happen?
Essentially, the 'Internet of Things' refers to the idea that anything and everything - from bathroom scales and washing machines to electricity meters and traffic sensors - can, and will, be connected to the Internet. The Internet of Things will see the Internet grow exponentially; changing from something that we access only when we need it, to something that exists all around us, all of the time and across every aspect of our lives.
However, having our fridges and watches connected to the Internet will be just a small part of the Internet of Things. As David Cameron said himself, the wider potential benefits of the Internet of Things - to business productivity, healthcare, transport and energy management, to name just a few examples - will be far greater.
These benefits will come from bringing connectivity to the systems and infrastructure that we rely on every day, thereby making it possible to monitor and manage them far more effectively.
For example, installing automatic sensors throughout the water system would bring myriad benefits; from spotting leaking pipes to monitoring water levels in rivers and reservoirs, or even constantly assessing the quality of drinking water in cities.
For businesses, the Internet of Things could enable real-time insights into the status of every product, customer or employee, allowing companies to react to changing demands far more quickly than they can today.
However, in order for the benefits of the Internet of Things to be fully realised, we also need to ensure that we have a strong foundation in place to support it. Such a huge number of connected devices will bring an enormous increase in the volume of data travelling across our networks.
This means it is vital that we have an infrastructure that can cope, at both a national and organisational level. In healthcare for instance, the growing reliance on connected devices will mean that any outage or fault in the network will be hugely damaging and could be life-threatening. Forward-looking healthcare organisations in the UK are already investing in networking infrastructure to support the digitisation of patient records, but as the Internet of Things develops, the pressure on those networks will become even greater.
The Government must therefore put an emphasis on getting the networking foundations right, as well as investing in Internet of Things devices and applications. To use a transport analogy; there is no point in developing the world's greatest high speed trains, if the railway network is not advanced enough to support them.
Ultimately, the potential for the Internet of Things, both technologically and economically, is vast. The analyst firm IDC has predicted that, by 2020, there will be as many as 212 billion devices connected to the Internet worldwide and, as an industry, the Internet of Things will have a total market value of $8.9 trillion. This represents a fantastic growth opportunity for both businesses and the UK as a whole. We just need to ensure that we lay the foundations for its success even as the hype around its potential grows. If we can do that, this week's £45 million Government investment could play a major role in delivering on a hugely exciting future.