More than 20 years ago on a business trip to Japan, I experienced something that really captured my imagination: A smart highway display that gave Tokyo’s frustrated commuters information on which routes were the most and least congested.
Around the same time, global positioning systems were being widely deployed as options in upscale Japanese automobile brands like Acura and Lexus. Finally, I remember thinking, some cool futuristic stuff. Not “Beam me up Scotty” cool, but I’ll take it.
Today, the convergence of low-cost computing power, smart wired and wireless sensor networks, big data storage, software analytics, and of course, the Internet, is bringing about a technology revolution of such import and magnitude that it makes smartphones and tablets seem like nothing but toys.
GE recently coined the phrase the “Industrial Internet,” but the concept or variations on the theme has come under the heading of The Internet of Things, Smartdust, Smart Systems, Machine to Machine (M2M), and IBM’s Smarter Planet.
Basically, it’s the ability to monitor, analyze, and control just about anything on the planet. Not anyone; anything. Machines, buildings, highways, cities, infrastructure – anything.
The way it works is trillions of low-cost sensors capture and transmit all sorts of real-time information over smart networks to data centers where sophisticated computer software can analyze it, make determinations, and instruct other machines to take action.
Take transportation, for example. Using smart technology, every aspect of air, freight, and automotive transport can be made safer, more efficient, and more cost-effective. Self-driven and sensor-equipped cars can minimize accidents and improve highway efficiency. Key component failure-prediction can improve transportation safety.
We’re already improving our energy efficiency with intelligent power grids, self-managed office buildings and industrial plants, and smart meters. There’s even a smart, sensor-aware thermostat from Nest Labs, the brainchild of former Apple iPod developer Tony Fadell.
IBM says it has thousands of Smart programs in the works, including one that’s designed to monitor heavy rainfall, predict floods and mudslides, and evacuate areas before tragedy occurs. Another monitors home water usage and patterns, enabling communities to consume less, become aware of possible leaks, and better manage draught conditions.
What if you had an iPhone app that could locate vacant parking spots in a crowded city? Or better still, the vacant spot sends a signal to your car’s smart GPS navigation system.
What if hospital operating room doors locked if sensors detected an unacceptable level or type of bacteria on a surgeon? Or if hospital personnel could locate doctors in real-time?
GE CEO Jeff Immelt appears to be betting big on the Industrial Internet.” At All Things D’s D11 conference last month, Immelt said, “There is a massive business opportunity” in using big data and software analytics to “anticipate industrial equipment maintenance needs,” reduce downtime, and create what he calls, “guaranteed outcomes.”
According to a report by Wikibon, the Industrial Internet is supposed to generate $514 billion in revenue by 2020, up from just $20 billion last year. To capitalize on that opportunity, GE recently announced a common platform for intelligent machines, sensors, and software analytics called Predictivity.
The conglomerate also announced a new partnership with Amazon Web Services for cloud data storage and expanded partnerships with consulting giant Accenture and Pivotal, an Enterprise Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) company run by former Microsoft, EMC and VMware executive Paul Maritz. GE recently invested $105 million in Pivotal.
With all these companies so heavily invested in the future of the Industrial Internet, it’s certainly worth exploring what kind of world this technology can eventually lead to.
Years ago, I spent a few months consulting for a Silicon Valley startup. The company, Dust Networks, developed groundbreaking technology in the field of wireless sensor networks. That’s how I became immersed in the world of Smartdust and The Internet of Things.
After countless PowerPoint presentations, an afternoon with Dust co-founder and U.C. Berkeley professor Kris Pister, and who knows how many articles, I was still confused about what it all meant. That’s when I came upon an explanation that finally resonated with me, from an article in The Economist:
“What if there were two worlds, the real one and its digital reflection? The real one is strewn with sensors, picking up everything from movement to smell. The digital one, an edifice built of software, takes in all that information and automatically acts on it. If a door opens in the real world, so does its virtual equivalent. If the temperature in the room with the open door falls below a certain level, the digital world automatically turns on the heat.”
That incredibly prescient vision came from an early 1990s book called “Mirror Worlds” by Yale University Computer Science professor David Gelernter. The real and digital worlds are indeed converging. And while many will almost certainly look at it fearfully – thoughts of The Matrix swirling around in their imaginations – consider this:
In our endless search for the next big thing, we’ve consistently created technology that’s made our lives more and more complicated. Isn’t it about time we create technology that reduces that complexity and makes our lives easier, safer, and more comfortable?
Call it whatever you want; I think this planet needs it.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.