Imagine a basket of shopping that suggests healthier alternatives to your favourite snacks, or a car that can route you around a jam before it has even formed, or doing an internet search to find the glasses you lost down the back of the sofa.
This is the vision of the Internet of Things (IoT) - a future where internet-connected tags or microprocessors are embedded into everyday objects, bestowing intelligent behaviour on inanimate objects.
The potential of connected everyday objects is demonstrated by the soon-to-be released Twine, an internet-connected box about the size of a credit card that can be set up to message its owner when some real-world action has occurred, and is able to signal events as diverse as the washing machine having finished or someone breaking into a garage.
The box works by listening to sensors that measure temperature, motion and moisture and then communicates with the owner over the internet.
Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Southampton and head of the web and internet science group, said the internet of things could bring intelligence to everything from your car to your fridge "to a chip on an apple that has some sense of its sell-by date", speaking to TechRepublic at the recent Digital London conference.
The simple messaging capabilities of early IoT-devices are just the beginning: the real leap forward will come once a critical mass of items, services and people are networked together.
Once a wide variety of things are able to talk then their data and decisions can be combined to give people access to information that wouldn't have been possible before.
Shadbolt said: "I think we will see this digital landscape keep evolving - we're going to see whole classes of new service meshing between your lifestyle, your health, what you're doing on a daily basis, transport and the like.
"The power is going to be in networks and decentralisation. Where you put little bits of local decision-making into the network you get a very interesting larger effect. That makes for a new kind of AI, I call it augmented intelligence, it's lots of intelligent capability across a wide range of network elements" Shadbolt said.
Niall Murphy, CEO of Evrythng, a company that specialises in creating digital profiles for physical objects, told the Digital London conference: "Consumers want to connect their objects to share information about what they're doing with those objects, to access more information about the products that they've purchased, to access additional services and to share content."
The IoT also opens up new social possibilities - an IoT bike could allow cyclists to identify and get together with others who bike the same routes or an IoT guitar could allow musicians to immediately upload and share their latest tunes.
Realising this vision of a world of connected, self-aware objects will require the evolution of existing tech and standards that supports online communication today.
Shadbolt said: "The semantic web seems very smart when you read the early papers, with software agents that are going to do everything for you. The reality is we need something much more basic in place before we can get to that place, which is how can we join the data that matters - that exists in the apps, in our phones, in our notebooks, in our spreadsheets and databases in the insurance company. How can we connect that together in a way that doesn't keep running into firewall problems, authentication and log-in problems?"
The other major requirement will be computing power and internet connectivity becoming so cheap and ubiquitous that it becomes feasible to embed disposable electronics with these capabilities onto everyday items.
The tech necessary to support the IoT is slowly being put in place. Chipmaker Arm recently announced an upgrade to its embedded chips to provide processing power at a lower energy cost, new forms of short range wireless connectivity like NFC are starting to become standard in consumer electronics and IPV6 will offer 340 trillion, trillion, trillion online addresses, providing the space needed to accommodate this influx of objects onto the internet.
With that influx of objects comes new commercial models too, as Evrythng's Murphy pointed out: "Just imagine what we can do when we can combine data from all the objects that are out there. There's a transactional ecosystem and economy waiting to explode."
That's because physical products become the start of a digital relationship between the manufacturer and the consumer. "By assigning a unique identity to each individual product we are able to turn each interaction from being generic into being personal for the consumer," he added.
The speed that the IoT will develop at is hard to predict, with estimates of the number of devices that will be online by 2020 ranging from 50 billion to one trillion.
The IoT is already attracting interest from government. In January, the UK's Technology Strategy Agency announced plans to share £500,000 among 10 UK companies, including BT, to help them develop technologies to use the internet of things. The European Union has separately funded the IERC — the Internet of Things European Research Cluster— via the Seventh Framework Programme to investigate new technologies that will enable its development.
Shadbolt believes that the vision of the always connected world of IoT will grow out of a gradual joining up and extension of existing apps and services that we access through our phones and browsers today. Eventually he predicts that we will come to rely on online software agents to guide us on everything from our health to our education, which will be made possible by the IoT's linking of things, services and people online.
"We can't afford our guardian angel but the equivalent in software is what we're talking about... I see the internet of things of providing a new kind of lifestyle."
Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.