You may have heard of the Internet of Things, the buzzword for a future in which sensors and devices are embedded in a wide range of physical objects -- from refrigerators to cars -- and linked through wired and wireless networks to the Internet. Those networks of machines won't be posting funny cat videos to Facebook, either -- they'll be churning out enormous volumes of data, which will then flow to powerful computers to analyze and communicate back to the machines.
Inanimate objects become tools for monitoring their environments, understanding trends and responding to them with incredible speed. It's a future that's already arriving. In Japan, for example, billboards look at people as they pass by, assess how they fit consumer profiles, and then change their messages to suit [source: Katz]. Precision combines link wirelessly to satellites and use their observations to alter the way that they till a particular field [source: Cibils].
But some of the most transformative effects of the Internet of Things will be felt in health care. Patients being treated for a chronic illness, for example, may be outfitted with sensors that allow doctors to monitor their vital signs continuously, both in and out of the hospital. That might enable doctors to spot when someone's health is starting to flag or when they are having an adverse reaction to medications, reducing emergency hospitalizations and preventable deaths [sources: RTI.com, Chui]. In the process, they could also gather huge quantities of data, from which patterns might emerge that could lead to a new treatment [sources: Niewolny, Jasper].
"If you've got chronic blood pressure issues, maybe there is blood pressure sensor in your seat belt in your car," Ed Price, a researcher at Georgia Tech's Institute for People and Technology, told Marketplace in 2013. "Obviously there is no time for a human to analyze all that data, but an algorithm in a computer can look at all your data for your blood pressure and trigger when there is an event that needs to be noticed by care providers" [source: Brancaccio].
Continuous network monitoring could also allow manufacturers to keep an eye on the performance of medical equipment, from MRI machines to pacemakers, make adjustments and repairs remotely, and reduce the possibility of breakdowns or performance lags [sources: Chui, Isaacs]. Varian Devices, a company that already monitors hospital equipment online, reports that the Internet of Things is able to reduce the amount of time needed to repair devices by 50 percent, with an average savings of $2,000 for devices that it's able to repair remotely [source: Isaacs].