Technology | The Hollywood bombshell behind new, life-changing technology

The Hollywood bombshell behind new, life-changing technology

Raja Murthy October 18, 2016 12:33 AM (UTC+8)
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At age 27 and at peak of her Hollywood career in 1941, enigmatic actress Hedy Lamarr patented an invention to protect Allied secret military communications from Nazi interception. Decades later, her ‘frequency hopping’ concept became the ‘spread spectrum’ technology in wireless communication widely serving the world through cell phones, Wi-Fi, and now through ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).

Hedy Lammar in publicity photo for Comrade X, 1940. Via Wikimedia Commons
Hedy Lamarr in publicity photo for Comrade X, 1940. Via Wikimedia Commons

Kevin Ashton, credited for the term ‘Internet of Things’ predicted India, South Korea and China becoming world’s top three exporters of IoT applications. In Bangalore on October 5, Ashton said he expects “amazing technologies” within a decade; many are already at work.

We know the Internet connects billions of computers worldwide. The Internet of Things, or Internet of Everything, connects everything: objects of daily use like refrigerator, oven, air-conditioner, cars have embedded sensors that send information through the Internet. Relevant data is processed, stored, analyzed, shared and automatically acted upon with IoT technology.

For instance, your garage mechanic, car maker and car driver can all simultaneously know when your car has a problem – the car has IoT sensors monitoring performance in real time, and sharing that information.

Using the car example, this crisp three-minute animation from the IBM Think Academy gives a basic idea of how IoT works:

Cisco estimates over 50 billion IoT-connected devices (Intel says 200 billion) in our daily life within four years, in a $2 trillion global industry. The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) measures India’s IoT market to be $15 billion by 2020.

Internet of Things will benefit everyone directly and indirectly: in homes, farms, road traffic, health care, factories, to ensuring safety in mines underground – as with the Canadian Dundee Precious Metals mining company.

With equipment and mine workers wearing IoT devices, Dundee’s staff on ground level have real time information from deep within the mine – including video conferencing with workers underground. Safety, efficiency improved. Dundee quadrupled annual production.

Just as the Internet enhanced our lives, its child the ‘Internet of Things’ will do better. Reducing time spent in mundane routines, and we travel towards human destiny that is in the supra-mundane.

A day in the life of an IoT family

Jared Cook’s excellent five-minute film ‘Life Simplified with Connected Devices’ shows a young family using Internet of Things. The Connected Devices Laboratory in the Utah-based Brigham Young University, has a ‘smart home’ managed through voice commands or a hand-held gadget like a cell phone:

The oven starts before Mum enters the house; lights, air-conditioners adjust with room sensors; the kid sister fails to wake up her brother by giving him a good thump with a pillow, but Mum does the needful from the kitchen while preparing breakfast, by turning up his bedroom stereo volume to 90 percent. Dad at office lets in the plumber at home for repairs.

More times seeing this YouTube video, more details in it can be spotted to realize the potential to IoT changing daily life:

IoT delivers promise of long-existing ideas such as ‘talking’ refrigerators in the 1990s. But now technology exists for the ‘smart’ fridge to announce impending shortage of cheese, apples, carrots. Press another button, the message reaches Mr Family Grocer for home delivery – shopping done in two seconds.

More such ‘smart objects’ will simplify life. University of Washington scientists have invented a new Wi-Fi system that uses 10,000 times less power. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) ranked it among 10 breakthrough technologies of 2016.

“Besides saving battery life on today’s devices, wireless communication that uses almost no power will enable an Internet of Things reality where household devices and wearable sensors can communicate using Wi-Fi without worrying about power,” said the WU news note.

The Internet of Everything is not a hyped, complex babble-gabble; it simply merges new Internet-connected technology to help us more easily, efficiently do daily chores at home, work at office; we benefit from better quality products and services – with a debt of gratitude to an unusual person born in Vienna, November 9, 1914, during World War 1.

Hedy Lemarr, Civilization Fire of IoT

In 1938, the year Adolf Hitler began unleashing hell on Earth, Austria-born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler arrived in the United States as the talented movie star Hedy Lemarr. With her eerie resemblance to Vivien Leigh (Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind), Lemarr was advertised to American audiences as ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Woman’. Her biographer Michael Shearer wrote: “when her face first appeared on the screen (in the 1938 classic ‘Algiers’), everyone gasped…Lamarr’s beauty literally took one’s breath away”. Then Hedy Lamarr became an enigma, a part-time scientist, a recluse.

Circa 1940, Lamarr (1914 – 2000) and composer George Anthiel (1900-1959) formed one of the most unusual scientific partnerships in history – a movie star and an avant-garde musician inventing a ‘Secret communication system’ to protect Allied military communication from Nazi interception. Lemarr and Anthiel received US Patent No. 2,292,387 for their invention which the MIT called “a stroke of genius” (*3).

“This invention relates broadly to secret communication systems involving the use of carrier waves of different frequencies, and is especially useful in the remote control of dirigible craft, such as torpedoes,” said their original US Patent Office document. “An object of the invention is to provide a method of secret communication which is relatively simple and reliable in operation, but at the same time is difficult to discover or decipher”.

For me, Lemarr’s invention symbolizes the yet unknown full potential of the Internet of Things. Nobody then, not even Dwight Eisenhower’s Allied Army generals, knew the full implications of ‘Patent No. US 2292387 A’ granted to “inventors Antheil George, Markey Hedy Kiesler” (Lamarr’s original name).

The deepening significance of Lamarr-Anthiel technology became clearer decades later. The online patent document shows the lengthening list of companies using it, from Northrop Aircraft, General Electric to Sony, Microsoft, AT&T and Cisco.

The list includes Tokyo Institute of Technology that in 2015 developed an electricity-conducting ink that can be printed on clothes. The special ink uses IoT technology to monitor heart rate, muscle contraction etc – particularly useful for athletes and recovering patients.

Like any revolutionary technology the Internet of Things faces growth pangs. Typical of its conflicting young life is media headlines serving both warnings and potential the same day, as on Sept 30, “The Internet of Things Goes Rogue,” MIT reported a hacker attack of epic proportions, and “The Internet Of Things Won’t Be Big. It’ll Be Huge,” said Forbes, explaining an unprecedented networked revolution.

I see IoT hope, concerns and skepticism similar to the Internet 20 years ago. Hardly anyone heard about the Internet, including my editors, when as a rookie journalist I began writing about the World Wide Web for the Times of India in Mumbai, and the first newspaper column in India exclusively on the Internet for The Sunday Statesman circa 1996.

Personal computers were rare 20 year ago, and even less common were Internet connections. I took turns to browse for about three hours a week in Vijay Mukhi’s Computer Institute in Tardeo, and the workstation of a copywriter in Colaba in South Bombay.

Doubts swirled, including fears about the Internet ‘collapsing’ one dark day with data overload. That Internet Armageddon failed to keep its scheduled appointment during the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney.

Just as now in 2016 routine life would be difficult without the Internet and smart phones, 20 years later in 2036, the Internet of Things will be seamless routine in daily life.

I call this the ‘Fire Principle’ of civilization: simultaneously born with every historic technology are concerns about its safe use.

Imagine if the Stone Age citizenry had abandoned this newfangled thing called ‘fire’ because it can burn, kill people, turn things to ashes.

So too the new civilization fire of the Internet of Things. We can use the networked fire for cooking necessities to give life’s comforting warmth, while applying safeguards.

The Internet of Things highway ahead

In 2015, the Indian government established the Center of Excellence for IoT in Bangalore, to optimize IoT. This joint venture involves IBM, Microsoft, Tata Consultancy Services, Accenture, CISCO, Intel, HCL Technologies, Qualcomm, L&T Technology Services, IBM, Cyient – indicating raw potential that global IT industry giants see in IoT.

Already fascinating new IoT products are in the market. Bonx from Japan adds a new dimension to usual outdoor group activities, in team sport like the Tour de France, as in this two-minute video:

The Boston-based company Jibo offers the ‘world’s first social robot’ – the IoT version of a secretary, butler, children’s playmate (9). Many more are IoT tools are ready ‘Everykey,’ from McAfee founder John McAfee, the no-more-passwords-key-for-everything.

Yet the key to control of one’s life are still in our hands – even decades after the greatest, most sweeping inventions. The choice remains at what speed we wish to journey through our days. Before Google was born, and as counter to the Internet circa 1998, a society called ‘Pencil Club’ started in England with the motto: ‘what’s the hurry?’

The Internet of Things takes nothing away in a hurry; only it more efficiently gives us more wondrous choices – to make the most beneficial use of the impermanent but very special existence called a human lifetime.

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai contributing to Asia Times since 2003. He writes for The Statesman since 1990, and earlier for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. When not in the Himalayas, he sometimes blogs in Morning Light.

Raja Murthy
Raja Murthy is an independent journalist based in Mumbai contributing to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly for Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, Wisden.com etc. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.
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