2013-04-30

Co.Exist

The Part Of The Internet You Don't See Lets Machines Talk To Each Other—And Will Change The World

The "industrial Internet," which connects things like cars and power plants and medical devices, is going to be making more and more of an impact in our day-to-day lives—and you might not even notice it happening.

The "industrial Internet" is the idea of connecting millions of machines—railroad cars, wind turbines, MRI scanners, you name it—to a network, extending today’s connectivity to factories, hospitals, buildings, and much else. According to Jon Bruner it is "machines becoming nodes on pervasive networks that use open protocols." And, to many others, it is as a big a deal as the Internet itself: essentially completing a job that’s only half-finished with web sites, email, Twitter, and so on.

"The same changes in software and networks that brought about decades of Silicon Valley innovation are now reordering the machines around us," Bruner, an editor at O’Reilly Media, says.

For a sense of what these changes might mean, take a look at Bruner’s excellent (and free) recent report. He writes about how the industrial Internet might improve efficiency and system visibility (allowing managers, for example, to understand their power supplies, as well as what’s happening in the factory). He explores some possible problems, notably around security. And he runs through dozens of examples of how it could affect particular industries. Below are a few highlights:

Energy

Connecting up every device in the energy system, from solar panels to washing machines, will improve efficiency, reduce outages, and allow utilities to better cope with spikes in demand and supply. Smart machines will take power when it’s cheapest, and when it’s cleanest, Bruner says. It should also make energy markets more transparent, down to the household level—a problem up to now.

Nest’s learning thermostat is an early example of a building control that saves energy and stores preferences. Bruner says future systems will patch in data from weather forecasts, carry out thermal modeling, and predict hourly electricity prices, running expensive-to-operate machines like air conditioners in the morning (when prices are good), and letting temperatures drift up a little in the afternoon (when they’re highest).

The industrial Internet will also allow utilities to have a much better view of their network, Bruner says. Instead of monthly read-outs of of customer usage, they’ll have them every 15 minutes, for example. He quotes an electrical engineer from Colorado, who says utilities will be more responsive. "Previously, we didn’t know what was going on at the customer level. Imagine trying to operate a highway system if all you have are monthly traffic readings for a few spots on the road. But that’s what operating our power system was like."

Automotive

Bruner says "the car in the era of the industrial Internet will be a platform—an environment that links software to the car’s physical machinery, that understands conditions outside the car, and that serves as a safe interface to the driver." Vehicles will have greater "contextual awareness" (for other road users, for example), and become more service-oriented. Instead of hardware replacements, cars will be upgraded with software (for example, their entertainment systems).

"By integrating its software with hardware, the car is also able to draw on more context to make better decisions—everything from its current location (and, say, nearby traffic conditions and businesses) to drive-train data that might help a driver save fuel."

Bruner also sees car-based sensors connecting with cloud-based systems. A windshield wiper could therefore tell drivers when it’s about to rain, and also inform other drivers as well. And the collected data could also be used by outside developers, to create further services.

Health care

Like energy, Bruner sees health care as an antiquated industry ripe for technological mediation. He sees the industrial Internet helping doctors make sense of enormous quantities of data (a single MRI session produces an estimated 3 gigabytes); improving diagnostics and prescribing; reducing the need for health workers to input medical data (machines will do it themselves); and facilitating greater home monitoring.

"The industrial Internet will make the health care sector more efficient by providing intelligence on top of machine data," he says. "Software will ingest sensor readings and perform real-time analysis, freeing doctors and nurses to do work that requires more sophisticated and nuanced patient interaction."

Transport

"The industrial Internet is coming to aviation in the form of high bandwidth connections within airplanes, between airplanes, and from airplanes to ground controllers," Bruner says. He sees aircraft-based sensors improving of the efficiency of flight plans and maintenance, and enabling sophisticated weather forecasting.

Fitted out with thousands of sensors at every point, railroads will be another key outpost, optimizing "everything from the placement of freight cars within a train to small variations in throttle." (We wrote a little about networked trains here).

The impact of the industrial Internet is not likely to create a frictionless utopia, where all machines work in sync and we can sit back and enjoy endless conveniences from automation. For one thing, some people are likely to lose their jobs: medical transcriptionists, truck drivers, assembly line quality-control assessors—all could be replaced, Bruner says. There will be institutional and political roadblocks, too. The general crappiness of today’s grid isn’t just due to technology, or a lack of it.

The industrial Internet will bring security problems, making today’s hacking look like playground roughhousing. To illustrate how vulnerable the network is, Bruner searches Shodan, "a search engine for the Internet of Things," for default passwords. He finds several computers just waiting to be infiltrated, or worse.

Still, the industrial internet promises to raise industrial efficiency at a time when many economists have said productivity gains were at an end. General Electric, which sponsored the report, has said it could raise worker productivity by 1.5% a year.

Bruner hopes to see some of the entrepreneurial spirit that has animated software development now migrating to physical things: "Like the Internet, [the industrial internet] invites the wide participation of anyone who cares to contribute expertise or ingenuity in solving a modular problem and scaling it across the world."

Kelly Rakowski/Co.Exist (Illustration)

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2 Comments

  • Stephen Grossman

    >A windshield wiper could therefore tell drivers when it’s about to rain,

    And this is better than eyeballs exactly how?

  • caterpi

    That's the trend since we can control the house with a mobile device, set the washer and dryer, since all electrical appliances was only a matter of time that heavy industry apparatus stop this advance glimpse of humanity, all interconnected by the Internet.

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