Internet taking on real world troubles

Next wave of computing will use digital devices to solve common problems

Go Christmas shopping, find restaurants, locate partying friends, tell the world what you’re up to. Some of the finest minds in computer science, working at start-ups and big companies, are obsessed with tracking your online habits to offer targeted ads and coupons, just for you.

But now — nothing personal, mind you — the Internet is growing up and lifting its gaze to the wider world. To be sure, the economy of Internet self-gratification is thriving. Web start-ups for the consumer market still sprout at a torrid pace. And young corporate stars seeking to cash in for billions by selling shares to the public are consumer services — the online game company Zynga last week, and the social network giant Facebook, whose stock offering is scheduled for next year.

As this is happening, though, the protean Internet technologies of computing and communications are rapidly spreading beyond the lucrative consumer bailiwick.
Low-cost sensors, clever software and advancing computer firepower are opening the door to new uses in energy conservation, transportation, health care and food distribution. The consumer Internet can be seen as the warm-up act for these technologies.

The concept has been around for years, sometimes called the Internet of Things or the Industrial Internet. Yet it takes time for the economics and engineering to catch up with the predictions. And that moment is upon us. “We’re going to put the digital ‘smarts’ into everything,” said Edward D Lazowska, a computer scientist at the University of Washington. These abundant smart devices, Dr Lazowska added, will “interact intelligently with people and with the physical world.”

The role of sensors — once costly and clunky, now inexpensive and tiny — was described this month in an essay in The New York Times by Larry Smarr, founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology; he said the ultimate goal was “the sensor-aware planetary computer.” That may sound like blue-sky futurism, but evidence shows that the vision is beginning to be realised on the ground, in recent investments, products and services, coming from large industrial and technology corporations and some ambitious start-ups.

One of the hot new ventures in Silicon Valley is Nest Labs, founded by Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive, which has hired more than 100 engineers from Apple, Google, Microsoft and other high-tech companies. Its product, introduced in late October, is a digital thermostat, combining sensors, machine learning and Web technology. It senses not just air temperature, but the movements of people in a house, their comings and goings, and adjusts room temperatures accordingly to save energy.

At the Nest offices in Palo Alto, Calif., there is a lot of talk of helping the planet, as well as the thrill of creating cool technology. Yoky Matsuoka, a former Google computer scientist and winner of a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, said, “This is the next wave for me.” Matt Rogers, 28, a Nest co-founder, led a team of engineers at Apple that wrote software for iPods. He loved his job and working for Apple, he said. But he added: “In essence, we were building toys. I wanted to build a product that could really make a huge impact on a big problem.”

Smart industrial gear
Across many industries, products and practices are being transformed by communicating sensors and computing intelligence. The smart industrial gear includes jet engines, bridges and oil rigs that alert their human minders when they need repairs, before equipment failures occur. Computers track sensor data on operating performance of a jet engine, or slight structural changes in an oil rig, looking for telltale patterns that signal coming trouble.

Sensors fruit and vegetable cartons can track location and sniff the produce, warning in advance of spoilage, so shipments can be rerouted or rescheduled. Computers pull GPS data from railway locomotives, taking into account the weight and length of trains, the terrain and turns, to reduce unnecessary braking and curb fuel consumption by up to 10 per cent.

Researchers at General Electric, the nation’s largest industrial company, are working on such applications and others. One is a smart hospital room, equipped with three small cameras, mounted inconspicuously on the ceiling. With software for analysis, the room can monitor movements by doctors and nurses in and out of the room, alerting them if they have forgotten to wash their hands before and after touching patients — lapses that contribute significantly to hospital-acquired infections. Computer vision software can analyse facial expressions for signs of severe pain, the onset of delirium or other hints of distress, and send an electronic alert to a nearby nurse.

Last month, GE announced that it was opening a new global software centre in Northern California and would hire 400 engineers there to write code to accelerate the commercial development of intelligent machines. “Our role is to build the software that enables us to do this industrial Internet,” said William Ruh, who will head the new centre.

In 2008, IBM declared that it was going to make a big push into the industrial Internet, using computing intelligence to create more efficient systems for utility grids, traffic management, food distribution, water conservation and health care. Smarter Planet was the label the company tacked on to the initiative, and industry analysts wondered if it was more than a sales campaign.

In a recent interview, Samuel J Palmisano, chief executive of IBM, emphasizsd that the programme’s origins were in the company’s research labs rather than its marketing department. “The timing was right because we had the technology,” he said. Today, IBM says it is working on more than 2,000 projects worldwide that fit in the Smarter Planet category.

In Dubuque, Iowa, for example, IBM has embarked on a long-term programme with the local government to use sensors, software and Internet computing to improve the city’s use of water, electricity and transportation. In a pilot project this year, digital water meters were installed in 151 homes, and software monitored water use and patterns, informing residents about ways to consume less and alerting them to likely leaks.

The savings in the pilot, nearly 7 per cent, would translate into curbing water use by 65 million gallons a year in Dubuque, a Midwestern city of 60,000. The next wave of computing does not step away from the consumer Internet so much as build on it for different uses (posing some of the same sorts of privacy and civil liberties concerns). Software techniques like pattern recognition and machine learning used in Internet searches, online advertising and smartphone apps are also ingredients in making smart devices to manage energy consumption, health care and traffic.

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