Ground Zero of the Next Big Thing

A highlight of this year's NI Week (held each August in National Instruments' hometown, Austin) was an inspiring keynote address by Paul Saffo. As director of the research firm The Institute for the Future, Mr. Saffo sniffs out technological trends and projects their impact on society and business.

I've been poring over the 36-page transcript of Saffo's speech trying to pull out the key points that relate to sensors, and having a hard time of it. Everything is related to sensors, and as Saffo's speech indicates, this comment applies not only to the speech, but increasingly to industry and our day-to-day lives.

Mr. Saffo said such endearing things as, "This decade is being shaped by sensors," and "You are at ground zero of the next big thing." He contends that sensors?and a few other technologies?are coming together to create phenomenal opportunities in a rapidly changing landscape. He speculated that if economist Joseph Schumpeter were alive today, he would describe the current scene as "a moment of creative destruction. Huge opportunities lie ahead," Saffo remarked, "but uncertainty is going to be as huge as the opportunity, and it's going to take every bit of your visionary skill, your management skill, and your technical vision to take advantage of what is about to happen . . . ." He advised the NI Week crowd of design engineers to "watch, as the rest of the world begins to converge on your little seemingly obscure corner of this business."

The Edge is the Center
Saffo quoted novelist William Gibson ("The future has already arrived; it's just not evenly distributed yet") and applied this concept to our current situation. He explained that broadband, processing, and wireless networking technologies are all converging around sensors and effectors, and predicted increasing interaction as a result. The real surprises, said Saffo, will come from the combined impact of these forces.

"I think what we are going to do here is not just sense and measure and control; you know, we are basically inviting our computers to look into our world and observe the world on our behalf. And we are not going to stop there, because the moment we ask them to observe the world on our behalf, we are also going to ask them to manipulate it on our behalf," he stated.

Until now, he said, "we have had two parallel universes, the physical world that you and I occupy and . . . this electronic world called cyberspace that our machines live in, and it turns out the two worlds barely touch. Our machines . . . have very little understanding, if any, of what goes on in the physical world." But sensors can and will change all that.

The convergence of cyberspace and the physical world, said Saffo, involves "vastly greater numbers of sensors than even you all imagine. You are actually on the edge of the industry, but what I see in my business is when revolutions are this big, edges end up becoming centers of things, and that I think is exactly what is happening."

Saffo challenged the audience to watch the human-machine interface disappear as sensors and effectors begin to deploy in earnest, beyond vertical industries and further into the day-to-day lives of regular folks. "Cyberspace and the physical world are going to come together. The devices are going to come into our lives willy-nilly, wrap around us, and interface disappears." We will have more natural, open, and complex conversations with our machines, in place of the stylized, formalistic typing, and pointing and clicking.

Simultaneously, the demand for communications bandwidth will increase?and change in nature. Saffo said that while today bandwidth is in demand for interpersonal communication and for enabling people to access information, activities involving humans will quickly become a minority share of the total bandwidth picture?perhaps only 3% within the decade. The future, he said, is not in people interacting with other people, but in machines interacting with other machines on the behalf of people. "It's going to be massive, massive volumes of analog sensor data sweeping over networks, machines talking to other machines, monitoring other machines, and you all are right on the edge of that," he noted, then added, "but even you will be surprised by how quickly that takes off."

Saffo used an example to illustrate machine-to-machine communication working on behalf of humans, explaining that "Every white goods manufacturer on the planet has a top secret program under way" to put Internet connection into refrigerators and washing machines. If all goes well, he said, there will be a wireless network in your home, and when you buy and install a new washing machine it will identify the network in the house and introduce itself to the server, saying "Hi, I'm a washing machine, would you mind if I use you from time to time to talk to my manufacturer over the Internet?" Then, some morning you will open your front door to leave for work and find a repairperson there who says, "Your washer has a flat bearing and it sent me an e-mail last night screaming for help."

Saffo also has his eye on sensors impacting wireless handheld devices; just use your imagination to extrapolate there.

This sets off a domino effect, because great volumes of sensor data will require radically different architectures and significantly more distributed and networked systems beyond what we can imagine. Saffo predicted the decline of the von Neumann architectures and digital realm, and some real surprises in analog space, not just for sensing and effecting, but also for new kinds of processing, which he called "the biggest wild card of all."

Got all that? The biggest and most important challenge, according to Saffo, is to take a much larger perspective than engineers are often inclined to do. "It's the hardest thing that you can do, but it's also the most important . . . because your business is about to become the center of the whole information revolution."

"I don't know who discovered water," said Marshall McLuhan, "but it was not a fish." So be sure to keep one eye out of the pond. "Outside your industry there are tectonic forces afoot," Saffo noted. "Precisely because of all the change and ferment in the sensor arena, you may discover that your very comfortable pond has suddenly become a bay into a very large ocean full of lots of unfamiliar and not entirely friendly sea life."