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Science Fiction No More
What follows is a summary of the speech that was delivered this week at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. While there is much more than stated here, this provides the thrust of my remarks …

  Glen Allmendinger
President & CEO
Harbor Research, Inc.

Originally published
Issue #70 - March 31, 2006
Harbor Research, Inc.

In business, as in society, a transformation of the superstructure takes place much more slowly than that of the substructure, making it easy to believe past truths despite emergent evidence of change. It is our observation that few people really grasp the order of magnitude of change coming with the next wave of Internet-driven innovation.

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Control Solutions, Inc

[What follows is a summary of the speech that was delivered this week at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. While there is much more than stated here, this provides the thrust of my remarks … Glen Allmendinger]

Harbor Research has focused most of its work on what we call “the Pervasive Internet”—the convergence of pervasive or embedded computing with the packet-switching “network of networks” called the Internet. We prefer “the Pervasive Internet” over other terms in common use because it captures the profound enormity of the phenomenon: the world on the Internet, the Internet in the world. Pervasive computing—also commonly called “ubiquitous” or “invisible” computing—usually refers to digital microprocessors and sensors embedded in everyday objects. But even this makes too many assumptions about what the pervasive phenomenon will be.

It is, in fact, very hard to really understand the full scope of the pervasive phenomenon. Why is this so hard to see? Why, when we have so many leading indicators, is it so impossible to see the next big thing?

“Pervasive computing” should automatically be understood as “networked pervasive information and computation,” but it isn’t. The nature and behavior of a truly distributed global information system are concerns that have yet to take center stage—not only in business communities but in all of society.

“The Pervasive Internet” really means the future of information, and that means the future of civilization. It will require a remarkably agile global network that could comfortably scale to trillions of nodes—some of them hardware, some software, some purely data, and many of them coming into and out of existence or changing location constantly. Obviously, such a network cannot be “designed” in any ordinary sense. Certainly, it cannot be designed “top down.” And yet the Pervasive Internet must be designed in some sense. Such a network will easily be the biggest technical achievement in the history of humanity. Its closest predecessor is the global financial economy—with which, in fact, it will share vital characteristics.

Don’t we already have a vast public information space called the World Wide Web? Didn’t the Web completely revolutionize human communication? And isn’t the Web working and scaling quite handsomely?

Almost everyone will answer with a resounding “Yes!” But consider this analogy from Buckminster Fuller: Suppose you are traveling on an ocean liner that suddenly begins to sink. If you rip the lid off the grand piano in the ballroom, throw it overboard, and jump on it, the floating piano lid may well save your life. But if, under normal circumstances, you set about to design the best possible life preserver, are you going to come up with the lid of a grand piano?

Control Solutions, Inc The World Wide Web is like that piano lid. In a period of great change and tumult, it worked—in the sense that it kept us afloat. But that does not make it the best possible design, or qualify it to be something that we should plan to live on forever.

Yet, in the course of one mere decade, the world has become so dependent upon the Web that most people, inside IT and out, cannot bring themselves to think about it with any critical detachment. Even in sophisticated discussions, the Web and its key enabling technologies are usually viewed as utterly inevitable and unquestionable.

IT professionals, for example, rarely talk these days about the need for ever-evolving information services that can be made available anywhere, anytime, for any kind of information. Instead, they talk about “Web services.” Even high-tech business people use the terms “the Web” and “the Internet” interchangeably without giving it a thought. But the Web is not the Internet. The Internet itself is a simple, elegant, extensible, scalable, technology-neutral networking system that will do exactly what it was designed to do for the indefinite future. The same cannot be said of the Web, which is essentially an application running on top of the Internet. It is not the only possible Internet application, nor is it the most profound one conceivable.

Now, after a decade of rampant, unruly Web proliferation, we see that the Internet’s inherent scalability has been both a blessing and a curse. The Internet was able to “give the Web all the rope it wanted,” and today the Web finds itself trying to be something that it was never designed to be: the fundamental platform for the future of humanity’s information.

The phrase should have been “networking changes everything.” That’s a mantra worth chanting because it applies to the neurons of the brain, or ants in an anthill, or human beings in a society, as well as information devices connected to each other. The many “nodes” of a network may not be very “smart” in themselves, but if they are networked in a way that allows them to connect effortlessly and interoperate seamlessly, they begin to give rise to complex, system-wide behavior that usually goes by the name “emergence.” That is, an entirely new order of intelligence “emerges” from the system as a whole—an intelligence that could not have been predicted by looking at any of the nodes individually. This is the change that is occurring in the superstructure

There’s a distinct magic to emergence, but it happens only if the network’s nodes are free to share information and processing power. The realization of the Pervasive Internet will involve billions upon billions of protean network nodes that ultimately “take on a life of their own.” Our present-day conception of “intelligent devices” and global data networking does not allow for that. Until we change that situation, we will not achieve the emergent magic implied by the phrase “the network is the computer.”

In business, as in society, a transformation of the superstructure takes place much more slowly than that of the substructure, making it easy to believe past truths despite emergent evidence of change. It is our observation that few people really grasp the order of magnitude of change coming with the next wave of Internet-driven innovation. But very few people are thinking about the Internet and pervasive computing on that level. We all casually repeat phrases like “the network is the computer” without really considering the implications.

In times of radical change, crises of perception often cause significant failures, particularly in large companies and policy groups. Such failures result from the inability of people to see emergent discontinuities. The challenge lies in the frame of reality a person creates in his or her mind -- the inner model of reality. The inner model of reality is a person's set of assumptions that structures understanding of the evolving environment. A person's inner model of reality never reflects the reality of the external environment; it reflects a construct based on experience. It is a reference model that allows people to focus on what is perceived as important in a complex world. In other words, it is a simplification of reality.

A person's decision model is shaped by the past and reinforced by the present. All too often, it also is extrapolated into the future in a linear fashion with the help of traditional forecasting methods. In short, when people are forced into a certain frame of reality, it is difficult for them to see paths that lie outside their frame of reference.

Reliable Controls People tend to avoid thinking about the implications of big changes and discontinuities. We tend to force a tyranny of replication that is in direct conflict with the continuously changing environment in which we live. We think this applies to how people view the evolution of the Internet in business and society. Call it what you will: the Pervasive Internet, pervasive computing, ubiquitous computing, network computing, device networking, machine-to-machine (M2M) messaging, sensor networks. In the end, it all points to enormous change well beyond a simple means of sharing static information.

Everyone agrees that information is power. To date, people and businesses have had the sketchiest of information about their environment—partial pictures, isolated snapshots, fleeting, blurry, outdated glimpses. We have now entered the age when everyday objects will communicate with, and control, other objects over a global data network—24/7/365, without human attention or intervention. That network is the Internet. The objects are everything from consumer appliances to the elevator you’ve been waiting for. It’s not “the future,” it’s now—this year, next year—and thus it is vitally important that leaders understand this phenomenon, its effects on their lives, and what they should do right now to position themselves for things that are literally just around the corner:

And on, and on, and on.

Science fiction? Not anymore.

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