Responding to Demand

Responding to Demand

Or take the Coca-Cola example. With MEMS, you can do something that's simple with a vending machine. Just given a sense of what time of year it is and what the temperature might be like outside, if you walk up to a Coke machine in February and there's snow on the ground, they might sell you a Coke below cost. But if you walk up to the same Coke machine, say it's on a golf course and it's the middle of summer and it's 100 degrees out, they're going to charge you a premium.

Other applications? Take quality control. Put moisture temperature sensors in a fast-food store's fryers so that you can find out if the humans changed the oil frequently enough, what the temperature of the fries were when they went in, if they were kept in the fryer for the right amount of time. If they're in there too long, the fryers can alert you. And so forth. You could create a fry robot that does it all better than humans now do, and every day that data is sent up to the headquarters of McDonald's Corp. for quality control.

All sorts of pieces of remote machinery toil away unnoticed beneath our streets or out in the middle of nowhere. Load them up with sensors with a two-way telecommunication system and you can ask, "It's 11 p.m., do you know what your transformer's doing?" That's a huge problem for the utilities industry. And there are public safety implications, like railroad crossings. Think how nice it would be if you could know the status of a railroad crossing at all times and know if the gate really did go down. People already have put some sensors in these gates, but nobody's doing it right yet—putting smart sensors in there so that you really have proof that that gate went down and the track is clear. Now it's an awfully expensive thing to do with electromechanical technology, but boy, you combine wireless with the existing communications link along that railroad, add in a couple of chips, and voilà. It can be done, and much cheaper now than ever before.

Data Overload

But before all of this can take off, there are big problems today that must be solved. The problem at the moment is that basically everything in your life will start to have a processor and some communications ability, and we're going to have huge problems about moving data—huge issues—and not just issues about the volume of bandwidth, but architecture and client/server issues. On one hand, client/server is a big help because what you want to do is drive client/server architectures deep into houses. I don't want just a client/server box in my house. I want my alarm system to have its own server and my entertainment system to have its own server. Who knows? Maybe a whole new service industry will have to be created to support it all. But in the end, it's probably going to mean that peer-to-peer is vastly more important. If one light switch needs to talk to a light bulb, it would be better if the two could just talk directly instead of having a server box match with it.

So the reigning issue here is the sheer volume of information. It's getting huge, and it will get much bigger. The irony of the information revolution so far is that there's not really that much information involved compared with what's ahead. The volume of bandwidth is one issue, but also it's an issue of the architecture of the bandwidth. That's a problem already. That's why AT&T is in such deep trouble, because they have a whole bunch of circuit-switched bandwidth. It's also why getting away from circuit-switched networks toward routed and more exotic bandwidth is the way to go: It drives down costs and increases speed.

And here's another point. I think "information revolution" is going to go down as one of the most inept terms ever. It worked fine for information theory pioneer Claude Shannon and his mathematical theory of communications and all that, but when they really touch and change our lives, information systems cease to be information systems. They're media. This is a media revolution. We're in the middle of a transition from an age of mass media that started with the introduction of the television to an age of personal media that got off to a halting start with the personal computer. And there are some big differences between the two. Mass media, largely passive, delivered the world to our living rooms—but all we could do was press our noses against the screen and watch. It was one-way, it was largely passive. We did, though, have slumbering interactive desires—in the form of channel surfing with remote controls. Personal media is much more active, and that's the Internet and the Web, and it's getting more and more active. So far, the activity has been human-to-human. Now increasingly, it will be human-to-machine and machine-to-machine. We're going to expect that we can interact with everything around us.

Sure, the sensor revolution is going to take a little while. But before we're through, we're going to see some things that kind of look like the Jetsons. It comes one device at a time. But it's already begun.

This article was originally published on 04-15-2002
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