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Houses, Ferries, Mousetraps, Buses and Businesses—All Find Ways to Communicate Through Twitter


Illustration by Mike Right

When the fall wind kicks up across the English Channel and blows over the Isle of Wight, the mice there start looking for ways to get inside. Every year it’s a problem, as IBM Master Inventor and Distinguished Engineer Andy Stanford-Clark tells it. His attic was filled with mice wiling the winter away, gnawing on the wiring of his house.

He put traps down, but they were hardly ideal or efficient. A dead mouse could sit moldering for a week or so, taking up space in an otherwise useful trap, before he finally remembered to check it.

There must be a better way, he thought. For example, what if the mousetrap could tell him when it had caught a mouse? What if the trap could communicate? That would be a better mousetrap.

Stanford-Clark got to work. He rigged up eight mousetraps throughout his attic with sensors that would be triggered when a rodent went to that “big cheese wheel in the sky.” Each trap was wired to a computer equipped with Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT), a messaging system Stanford-Clark and a colleague had written years earlier. MQTT functions as a kind of digital postman that determines where messages should be delivered. In this case, the messages were delivered to Stanford-Clark’s phone to let him know a trap had sprung and a mouse was caught. So instead of wasting days of good trapping, he was able to clear the trap and set a new one right away for maximum mouse-catching efficiency.

The “octo-trap” worked beautifully and put a serious dent in the indoor mouse population for about five years, until he was able to fix the holes in the roof. But more to the point, it was a near-perfect example of IBM’s Smarter Planet* initiative, a part of which is more widely known as the Internet of Things. That is to say, a world where machines have the capability to tell us what we need to know when we need to know it. When this reality arrives, a whole new world of possibilities will open up. These are things that Stanford-Clark sees more clearly than most.

The Internet of Things

The idea of the Internet of Things has been around for some time in various forms and has been given a host of different names. One of the earliest versions was SCADA, or supervisory control and data acquisition, which was a technology used by oil and gas companies to monitor and control far-flung pipelines. Other appellations for the Internet of Things have included remote telemetry, tier zero, pervasive computing, ubiquitous computing or machine to machine, which captures the spirit of the venture but not the scope. However, the Internet of Things is not just machines talking to machines; it’s also machines talking to people and vice versa. It is, as IBM’s Smarter Planet moniker indicates, a more efficient and effective use of data from the world.

Once the things of the world begin communicating with people, some say that could have a greater impact than the Internet. Companies predict billions of dollars in efficiency-driven savings and profits from new markets—a few even predict numbers in the trillions. But whatever the size, everyone seems to sense that the world of talking machines will be a big deal.

Frank Bures is an award-winning writer based in Minneapolis, Minn., and the literary editor at Thirty Two Magazine.



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