I could be wrong, but I am fairly sure the phrase “Internet of Things” started life as the title of a presentation I made when I was a Brand Manager at Procter & Gamble (P&G) in 1999. Linking the then-unheard-of idea of putting wireless sensors on P&G’s products to the then-red-hot topic of the Internet was more than just a good way to get executive attention. It summed up an important insight that is still often misunderstood.

The fact that I was probably the first person to say “Internet of Things,” does not give me any right to control how others use the phrase. But what I meant, and still mean, is this: Today computers—and, therefore, the Internet—are almost wholly dependent on human beings for information. Nearly all of the roughly 50 petabytes (a petabyte is 1,024 terabytes) of data available on the Internet were first captured and created by human beings—by typing, pressing a record button, taking a digital picture or scanning a bar code. Conventional diagrams of the Internet include servers and routers and so on, but they leave out the most numerous and important routers of all: people. The problem is, people have limited time, attention and accuracy—all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world.

And that is a big deal. We are physical, and so is our environment. Our economy, society and survival are not based on ideas or information—they are based on things. You cannot eat bits, burn them to stay warm or put them in your gas tank. Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more. Yet today’s information technology is so dependent on data originated by people that our computers know almost everything about our ideas and almost nothing about our world. The infra-red faucet in the airport bathroom that only comes on sometimes still has more idea you exist than your laptop ever will.

If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things—using data they gathered without any help from us—we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best. We would know more about our health and safety — and about the health and safety of the people we love. We would know exactly how we are consuming vital resources like energy and water, and how to do so more efficiently.

We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory. Perception and sensor technologies enable computers to observe, identify and understand the world—without the limitations of human-entered data.

Fourteen years on, we have made a lot of progress, but those of us in the Internet of Things community need to understand what is so important about what our technology does, and keep advocating for it. It is not just remote control lightbulbs or wireless thermostats, and we must never allow our vision to shrink to that scale. The Internet of Things is the third age of computing. It has the potential to change the world, just as the computer and the Internet did. Maybe even more so.

Updated from an article published in RFID Journal in June 2009 called, “That Internet of Things Thing: In the real world, things matter more than ideas.” Reproduced with permission.