A Big, Transformative Impact

Having spent the past many years studying information technology trends and their impact, technology forecaster Paul Saffo knows something of the future of sensors. Please note: It will prominently feature "a sensor-rich environment" and "an intelligent distributed network." Not just on the factory floor, either, where the majority

The result of a sensor-rich environment and an intelligent, distributed network—on business and society in general—will be big and transformative.
of sensors' market share now lies. The result?on business and human society in general?will be "big" and "transformative," says Saffo.

Given that attending Sensors Expo is practically in my job description, I am thrilled that Mr. Saffo will deliver the keynote address at Sensors Expo Spring in San Jose next month. Like you, I've seen a heck of a lot of speeches in my time, but few stand out in my memory. Among those that do is one Saffo gave at NIWeek a couple of years ago. When I reported on it in Sensors (November 2000, page 4) I got more response than I'd ever received for an editorial column.

I directed readers who contacted me about that (or wish I had; I did not know about it at first) to Saffo's essay titled "Sensors: The Next Wave of Infotech Innovation." Although it was written five years ago it's an inspiring read, especially the way he compares sensors with microprocessors.

Saffo's upcoming keynote (sponsored by National Instruments, not surprisingly) gave me an excuse to talk with him. I won't take the wind out of his Sensors Expo sails, but I would like to highlight a few things he said.

  1. The diffusion of sensor technology is happening more quickly than people realize. Saffo pointed to Alien Technology, a company that has patented an IC manufacturing technology that can dramatically reduce manufacturing costs for electronic devices. Specifically shaped semiconductor devices are suspended in liquid and flowed over a substrate (anything from glass to flexible plastic) dotted with correspondingly shaped receptors, into which the devices settle and self-align. Imagine the impact of such a process in terms of proliferation. Although the cost to produce ICs in this manner is currently about five cents apiece, just imagine the further impact when the price drops to one cent. Did someone say disposable sensors?

  2. When sensors go mainstream, big ideas will be paired with shoestring budgets, and it will all become "terribly unpredictable." You can pat yourself on the back for all you've done to develop sensor technology and applications, but if you are to survive in the post-revolutionary era, you need a larger perspective. Forces outside are beginning to shape the future of sensors. Visionaries know that markets change?sometimes dramatically.

  3. Security applications are a red herring. The real deal is the transformation of the Military Industrial Complex to the Military Entertainment Complex. Technology used to trickle down, being developed first for high-end, high-cost applications, and later making its way into people's homes. But that won't be the case in the future. The most advanced technology will show up in consumer electronics.

  4. The sensor revolution isn't just about sensors, but also effectors?devices that act on data they receive from sensors. The "world of smart effects" is one in which things get really interesting. The main players are machines that interact with other machines on our behalf.

See you at the Sensors Expo keynote. Look for me in the front row.