At a recent dinner, a tech executive presented our table with a bottle. She'd just met an olive farmer in Italy, she said, and had loved his grassy, spicy, extra-virgin olive oil.
I'm definitely no oil expert, but what she served us looked suspicious. It was light yellow, not vibrant green. Tasting it didn't remind me of the Italian countryside. It reminded me of the canola oil in which my grandpa fried chicken.
But there will soon be a way to authenticate your artisanal olive oil before you buy it. Thanks to interconnected mobile phones, cameras, sensors, and spectrometers, you will soon be able to analyze virtually anything in the physical world. Forget the internet of things. This is the "internet of X."
Imagine a future in which everything you see--the stapler on your desk, your vitamins, the pallet of bottled water you just bought--is searchable, and reveals what you're looking at and what's hidden deep inside. Tangible things will soon become minable data for the internet of X, with X including consumer goods, pharmaceuticals, and yes, even olive oil.
For those who sell products and manufacture goods, the internet of X looks like a huge opportunity. The internet of X could allow potential customers to discover which rock salt has cleared a city sidewalk so well, and which seasoning is sprinkled on their French fries. And if your company is trying to take on McCormick with your new version of Old Bay, you'd have a captive audience and a chance to market to your consumers while they're in the middle of enjoying your product; with the right app, one quick scan would reveal its name.
Already, there's an internet of color. The Mozbii pen is equipped with a sensor. Press your Mozbii against any object, and you can import its color into a mobile app or Photoshop. If you want to paint your office lobby the exact red of the Golden Gate Bridge, Sherwin-Williams has an app that lets you use real-world objects to search its paint database for the matching color.
The Israeli startup Consumer Physics has built an internet of ingestibles, using handheld molecular sensors embedded with a tiny spectrometer. Point one at an object, like a watermelon, and it breaks the light being reflected into a spectrum to show the object's chemical fingerprint. That information is then compared with a database of foodstuffs. Scan and search, the company says, to see if a watermelon has reached peak sweetness, or whether your medicine is real or counterfeit.
Matchmaker Exchange is an internet of DNA, giving access to and facilitating genetic data from sick individuals to help doctors answer questions about rare diseases. A consenting patient's unique DNA is loaded into an interconnected web of medical databases, into which a doctor can enter symptoms to determine whether the patient's condition matches the profile of a rare disease.
The internet of X is the next evolution of "showrooming," in which customers visit a store, scan an item's barcode, then search on Google or Amazon to find the product at a cheaper price. There are, of course, concerns that need to be addressed: Hackers could get into a DNA database to steal medical information. And I can envision moments of extreme mischief-making: Picture a man internet-of-X-ing a bottle of blue-stained sugar pills, unaware that the prankster he got them from has also hacked his scanner so that it confidently flashes "Definitely Viagra."
Besides unlocking information, the internet of X will create new demand for transparency. Imagine if every food had its own digital nutrition label that could be scanned to display its exact ingredients and nutrients. If I were a crooked "olive oil" peddler, I'd start worrying.