Exploring the Internet of Things 2: Actuators and their like

Think about all the things your car does in response to electronic and physical commands. The basics: It starts. It changes gears. It changes direction. It changes velocity. It brakes. In addition, doors and windows open and close. Air blows hot and cold. Warnings flash and chime. Seats and mirror adjust.

We experience all these directly. Beneath our notice, the fuel/air mixture is adjusted, the engine is cooled, and more. The point is not to provide an ode to the operation of a car, but to demonstrate the power and variety of actuators and their like. The dictionary definition (“a servomechanism that supplies and transmits a measured amount of energy for the operation of another mechanism or system”) and the Wikipedia description (a type of motor for moving or controlling a mechanism or system) don’t quite convey the possibilities.

Actuators and their like (lasers, magnets, thermocouples, etc.) provide a means to act on the environment. In the case of the Internet of Things, they provide the muscle to carry out commands and follow through on decisions, whether these come from humans, algorithms, programs, or a combination. Right now, humans may still be the primary actuators of our smart environment. Before too long, that will not be the case.

AutomaticallyMy car is old enough not to automatically stop in emergency situations and not to have a capability for parking itself. Those decisions are still in my hands, but I expect that this will not be true for my next car. By the time I am ready for the car after that one, it probably will be able to drive me. (I expect that, before that, I will be riding in cabs that have no drivers. There’s a good chance that you have already ridden in a train without a driver.

Computers sharing information and acting on it are becoming ubiquitous in manufacturing and have worked themselves into unexpected places such as operating theaters. (Hundreds of thousands of robot-assisted surgeries are performed each year. See also an article in the New York Times.) Even without the knowledge and controls of the Internet of things, we have robots that clean our carpets. And though we don’t think about them as robots, you could add dishwashers, ovens, household heating/cooling, and sewing machines to the list. These all have computers with sensors that use actuators to start, regulate, and stop so they can help with or perform useful work. I load in the water and coffee and tell my coffee maker when I want my coffee. It does the rest. (This morning it told me I needed to clean it. I’m the actuator for that task.)

The ideas floating around about what happens when coffee pots, cars, and washing machines link up are rather dull. Things get a bit more interesting when it comes to security systems. I’m intrigued by coordination of robotic surgeons, though my imagination seems to be dystopian. And the Internet of Drones gives me nightmares.

But the point is that we are on the verge of, not just an Internet of Things that talk to each other, but an Internet of Things that take action. The action can be as gross as landing a jumbo jet and as fine as regulating a heartbeat. Actions will be coordinated, making the baby steps of today into the dance movements of a ballerina. Expect surprises. Expect fun. But don’t forget about the drones.



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