We need an Internet that performs flawlessly, every second of every day

As we increasingly depend on connected devices, primary concerns will narrow to safety, reliability, and survivability.

Editor’s note: this interview with GE’s Bill Ruh is an excerpt from our recent report, When Hardware Meets Software, by Mike Barlow. The report looks into the new hardware movement, telling its story through the people who are building it. For more stories on the evolving relationship between software and hardware, download the free report.

More than one observer has noted that while it’s relatively easy for consumers to communicate directly with their smart devices, it’s still quite difficult for smart devices to communicate directly, or even indirectly, with each other. Bill Ruh, a vice president and corporate officer at GE, drives the company’s efforts to construct an industrial Internet that will enable devices large and small to chat freely amongst themselves, automatically and autonomously. From his perspective, the industrial Internet is a benign platform for helping the world become a quieter, calmer, and less dangerous place.

“In the past, hardware existed without software. You think about the founding of GE and the invention of the light bulb — you turned it on and you turned it off. Zero lines of code. Today, we have street lighting systems with mesh networks and 20 million lines of code,” says Ruh. “Machines used to be completely mechanical. Today, they are part digital. Software is part of the hardware. That opens up huge possibilities.”

A hundred years ago, street lighting was an on-or-off affair. In the future, when a crime is committed at night, a police officer might be able to raise the intensity of the nearby street lights by tapping a smart phone app. This would create near-daylight conditions around a crime scene, and hopefully make it harder for the perpetrators to escape unseen. “Our machines are becoming much more intelligent. With software embedded in them, they’re becoming brilliant,” says Ruh.

But the Internet we’ve grown accustomed to isn’t reliable, robust, or anti-fragile enough for what Ruh envisions, which is a world of smart devices that are constantly sharing data and making real-time decisions.

Networks of smart devices already exist in the aviation industry. The locomotives and wind turbines GE builds, for instance, have smart components that report their status and warn of impending breakdowns. The rest of the world, however, gets by on an Internet designed mostly for sharing noncritical information.

For example, if your Internet connection goes down while you’re sending an email to a friend, posting a status update on Facebook, or watching someone’s cat riding a Roomba vacuum on YouTube, it’s not really a big deal. Almost all of the technology we associate with our PCs and mobile devices is really consumer technology, which means that it’s reasonably okay but not the absolute best it can be. And for 99.9% of what we do in our daily lives, that’s fine. Even the dreaded “blue screen of death” wasn’t really fatal.

All of that changes when the machines we depend on for matters of life and death are added to the mix. When jet engines, municipal water systems, and heart-lung machines join the conversation, we need an Internet (and all of the information and communication technologies supporting it) that performs flawlessly, every second of every day. Today, when your LinkedIn page freezes, it’s irritating, but not dangerous. Tomorrow, when your Google driverless car freezes (let’s not use the word “crash”), it’s a different story.

“We expect the software in our machines to be as good as the hardware. Meeting those expectations requires a different approach to software design, a different mentality.”

As a culture, we’re going to have to figure out how to make hardware that works all the time. “People get testy when their cell phone drops a call, but they get really testy when their electricity stops working,” says Ruh. When actual lives are at stake, concepts such as reliability, scalability, and security become incredibly relevant. They become more than just buzzwords used by marketers and industry journalists.

“We have a visceral response when the machines we depend on stop working. We expect the software in our machines to be as good as the hardware. Meeting those expectations requires a different approach to software design, a different mentality,” says Ruh.

The “old” mentality, says Ruh, meant designing products for “rocket scientists” and assuming that they would eventually, through trial and error, figure out how to use it. As a result, most products had features that people never used. Microsoft Word is the classic example of the “old” software design mentality, and it’s probably fair to say that most flat screen televisions are shipped with more features than will ever be used by the typical consumer. Earlier in this paper, Joichi Ito spoke of throwing a design over a wall and expecting someone on the other side to turn it into a finished product. Ruh offers a similar thought, suggesting that many software designers neglect to consider the consequences of their designs on the end user. He predicts that more companies will require designers to come up with “zero installation time” products and services that work right out of the box, requiring no setup or fiddling to deliver expected levels of performance.

“People today assume they have a certain set of inalienable rights, such as the right to see water flowing when they turn on the tap and the right to see the lights go on when they touch a switch. People feel very strongly about those rights, and they will get upset when they feel that their basic needs aren’t met,” Ruh says.

Is the industrial Internet — the Internet of Things, the Internet of Everything — prepared to deliver that kind of service? Are products designed for the new age of smart devices capable of delivering on expectations such as continuous improvement, 24/7 reliability, and zero installation?

In his book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and The Eclipse of Capitalism, author Jeremy Rifkin notes that in 2007, “there were 10 million sensors connecting every type of human contrivance to the Internet of Things. In 2013, that number was set to exceed 3.5 billion, and even more impressive, by 2030 it is projected that 100 trillion sensors will connect to the IoT.”

It seems highly unlikely that the Internet — which was neither conceived nor designed to function as an industrial-strength communications system — will ever fulfill the role of a universal medium for connecting everything to everything else. What seems more likely, however, is that machines will become smarter and more autonomous. We will design machines that we can trust to do the right thing, even when we’re not keeping an eye on them.

The concept of trustable machines returns us to our earlier conversation about the evolving relationships between software and hardware, and between design and manufacturing. Ideas such as “zero installation time,” “zero user interface,” and “invisible buttons” require ditching the old paradigms of software versus hardware and design versus manufacturing. As we become increasingly dependent on our gadgets and devices, our primary concerns will narrow down to safety, reliability, redundancy, and survivability. In a world of brilliant machines and 100 trillion networked sensors, the main question will be, “Does this thing actually work?”

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