Looking at the collision of hardware and software through the eyes of a data scientist.
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series reflecting on the O’Reilly Solid Conference from the perspective of a data scientist. Normally we wouldn’t publish takeaways from an event held nearly two months ago, but these insights were so good we thought they needed to be shared.
In mid-May, I was at Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference on the convergence of hardware and software. I went in as something close to a blank slate on the subject, as someone with (I thought) not very strong opinions about hardware in general.
The talk on the grapevine in my community, data scientists who tend to deal primarily with web data, was that hardware data was the next big challenge, the place that the “alpha geeks” were heading. There are still plenty of big problems left to solve on the web, but I was curious enough to want to go check out Solid to see if I was missing out on the future. I don’t have much experience with hardware — beyond wiring up LEDs as a kid, making bird houses in shop class in high school, and mucking about with an Arduino in college. Read more…
The Tango smartphone will help SPHERES navigate space station modules.
I work in the Intelligent Robotics Group (IRG) at NASA Ames Research Center, and when we got the chance to collaborate with our next-door neighbor Google on their new Project Tango, we knew exactly what to do: we’re sending the Project Tango smartphone to the International Space Station, where it will set our robots free.
Smart SPHERES with a space-ready Project Tango phone. Photo courtesy of NASA.
The collision of software and hardware has broken down the barriers between the digital and physical worlds.
Note: this post is a slightly hydrated version of my Solid keynote. To get it out in 10 minutes, I had to remove a few ideas and streamline it a bit for oral delivery; this is the full version.
In 1995, Nicolas Negroponte told us to forget about the atoms and focus on the bits. I think “being digital” was probably an intentional overstatement, a provocation to shove our thinking off of its metastable emphasis on the physical, to open us up to the power of the purely digital. And maybe it worked too well, because a lot of us spent two decades plumbing every possibility of digital-only technologies and digital-only businesses.
By then, technology had bifurcated into two streams of hardware and software that rarely converged outside of the data center, and for most of us, unless we were with a firm the size of Sony, with a huge addressable market, hardware was simply outside the scope of our entrepreneurial ambitions. It was our platform, but rarely our product. The physical world was for other people to worry about. We had become by then the engineers of the ephemeral, the plastic, and the immaterial. And in the depth of our immersion into the virtual and digital, we became, it seems, citizens of Weblandia (and congregants of the Church of Disruption).
But pendulums always swing back. Read more…
A software company reaches into the physical world with hardware.
PayPal is a software company, but when I met with Josh Bleecher Snyder, director of software engineering at PayPal, it was to talk about hardware. He’s leading the development of Beacon, PayPal’s new hands-free payment platform. At its heart is a finger-size stick that uses Bluetooth Low Energy to connect with mobile phones and confirm identity.
Paypal’s move into hardware extends its software into the physical world — a key idea behind our Solid Conference. What was once a system confined to screens and keyboards is now part of a new set of interactions in brick-and-mortar stores.
Beacon is part of a vast PayPal stack, and Bleecher Snyder’s team solved problems with a blend of hardware and software thinking — writing code in Go that was efficient enough for Beacon’s processor to be underclocked and avoid overheating, and to anticipate attacks on PayPal’s service that might come from compromised hardware. His entire system hews to PayPal’s “don’t be creepy” mantra by quickly and permanently discarding data that isn’t used in transactions. Read more…
The key to brilliant factories lies in the combination of information technology and operations systems, says GE's CIO.
Solid is about the intersection of real and virtual — the idea that, through sensors, networks, and intelligent machines, information can move fluidly between software and the physical world. It’s easy to see the technical implications of that intersection — thermostats that adjust themselves and cars that can drive autonomously — but there’s also a crucial management implication as well. Just as design can be automated and optimized if it’s encapsulated in software, a company’s operations can be made much more efficient if they’re modeled digitally before being executed.
Jamie Miller, senior vice president and chief information officer at General Electric, calls that “IT meets OT” and sees the combination changing her industry. “When you take these two disciplines that used to be separate and combine them, you can start to approach engineering and design differently, operate workflow differently, make factories brilliant.” It’s a philosophy that GE uses internally and builds into the products it sells.
Companies like GE have a lot of data — digital designs for manufactured parts, human-resources records, work orders from customers, service manuals — and this data tends to converge on human operators. A field technician might receive a work order to fix a wind turbine, visit the machine, consult documentation, call a colleague for specialized advice, order a replacement part, and finally make the repair. Read more…
Physical and biological design are about to get much more digital, says Autodesk’s CTO.
One of the core ideas behind our Solid Conference is that software can replace physical complexity, and that it’s getting easier for it to do so because the relationship between the physical and virtual worlds is becoming more fluid. Input tools like 3D scanners and computer vision software, and output tools like CNC machines and 3D printers are essentially translators between digital and physical. They make it possible to extract information from physical objects, compute on it, transform it, combine it with other data, and then “rematerialize” it.
I recently spoke with Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski about this convergence between physical and digital, and its impact on design. In his view, computers are about to go from mere drafting tables to full partners in the design process. They’ll automate the tedious cycle of trial and error, and leave designers to guide aesthetics and experience. “Decades ago, someone came up with the term ‘computer-aided design,’ but what we’ve had up to now is really computer-aided documentation,” he says. “Design has been accomplished solely in the head of the designer, and then the computer is used to document the outcome.” Read more…
Design in the hardware era, how big companies and small companies should interact, and the importance of data privacy
On stage, along with myself, are three Solid people: Rachel Kalmar, data scientist at Misfit Wearables and member of our program committee; Mike Kuniavsky, principal scientist at PARC and speaker on Functional Forms at Solid; and Dan Saffer, creative director at Smart Design, who will speak about microinteractions (and has written an O’Reilly book about microinteractions as well). Read more…
Self-driving cars will make decisions — and act — faster than humans facing the same dangerous situations.
Frankly, I’m already tired of the discussion. It’s not as if humans don’t already get into situations like this, and make (or not make) decisions. At least, I have. Read more…
Talk of the "tech sector" is out of date. Every company is a tech company.
Uber has encountered a series of challenges that are notionally unfamiliar to the current generation of tech companies: wrongful-death lawsuits, rent-seeking by an entrenched industry, regulatory scrutiny from local bureaucrats, worker protests. The company admitted to having disrupted a competitor’s operations by calling its cars, then canceling. No matter how explicitly it warns about surge pricing, riders accustomed to a certain way of booking a car ride object.
There’s an established industry that charges people for rides in cars, and it’s been reduced to a set of straightforward points of competition: price, car quality, ease of booking, and — treacherously for Uber and uncharacteristically for “tech companies” in general — the burly and distasteful accumulation of political clout before municipal taxi commissions. Read more…