But now — nothing personal, mind you — the Internet is growing up and lifting its gaze to the wider world. To be sure, the economy of Internet self-gratification is thriving. Web start-ups for the consumer market still sprout at a torrid pace. And young corporate stars seeking to cash in for billions by selling shares to the public are consumer services — the online game company Zynga last week, and the social network giant Facebook, whose stock offering is scheduled for next year.
As this is happening, though, the protean Internet technologies of computing and communications are rapidly spreading beyond the lucrative consumer bailiwick. Low-cost sensors, clever software and advancing computer firepower are opening the door to new uses in energy conservation, transportation, health care and food distribution. The consumer Internet can be seen as the warm-up act for these technologies.
The concept has been around for years, sometimes called the Internet of Things or the Industrial Internet. Yet it takes time for the economics and engineering to catch up with the predictions. And that moment is upon us.
“We’re going to put the digital ‘smarts’ into everything,” said Edward D. Lazowska, a computer scientist at the University of Washington. These abundant smart devices, Dr. Lazowska added, will “interact intelligently with people and with the physical world.”
The role of sensors — once costly and clunky, now inexpensive and tiny — was described this month in an essay in The New York Times by Larry Smarr, founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology; he said the ultimate goal was “the sensor-aware planetary computer.”
That may sound like blue-sky futurism, but evidence shows that the vision is beginning to be realized on the ground, in recent investments, products and services, coming from large industrial and technology corporations and some ambitious start-ups.
One of the hot new ventures in Silicon Valley is Nest Labs, founded by Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive, which has hired more than 100 engineers from Apple, Google, Microsoft and other high-tech companies.
Its product, introduced in late October, is a digital thermostat, combining sensors, machine learning and Web technology. It senses not just air temperature, but the movements of people in a house, their comings and goings, and adjusts room temperatures accordingly to save energy.
At the Nest offices in Palo Alto, Calif., there is a lot of talk of helping the planet, as well as the thrill of creating cool technology. Yoky Matsuoka, a former Google computer scientist and winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, said, “This is the next wave for me.”
Matt Rogers, 28, a Nest co-founder, led a team of engineers at Apple that wrote software for iPods. He loved his job and working for Apple, he said. But he added: “In essence, we were building toys. I wanted to build a product that could really make a huge impact on a big problem.”
Across many industries, products and practices are being transformed by communicating sensors and computing intelligence. The smart industrial gear includes jet engines, bridges and oil rigs that alert their human minders when they need repairs, before equipment failures occur. Computers track sensor data on operating performance of a jet engine, or slight structural changes in an oil rig, looking for telltale patterns that signal coming trouble.
SENSORS on fruit and vegetable cartons can track location and sniff the produce, warning in advance of spoilage, so shipments can be rerouted or rescheduled. Computers pull GPS data from railway locomotives, taking into account the weight and length of trains, the terrain and turns, to reduce unnecessary braking and curb fuel consumption by up to 10 percent.
Researchers at General Electric, the nation’s largest industrial company, are working on such applications and others. One is a smart hospital room, equipped with three small cameras, mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling. With software for analysis, the room can monitor movements by doctors and nurses in and out of the room, alerting them if they have forgotten to wash their hands before and after touching patients — lapses that contribute significantly to hospital-acquired infections. Computer vision software can analyze facial expressions for signs of severe pain, the onset of delirium or other hints of distress, and send an electronic alert to a nearby nurse.
Steve Lohr is a technology reporter for The New York Times.