As I See It: Smarten Up
June 8, 2009 Victor Rozek
IBM is worried about the world. Like a parent with an underachieving child, IBM thinks it’s time to sit the world down and have a serious conversation. So listen up world, the computer maker wants you to get smarter, because apparently you’re none too bright at the moment. In contrast to the fried philosopher Timothy Leary, however, who memorably urged the world to “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” the great thinkers at IBM have come up with a slightly less catchy dictum. They’re calling on the world to get “instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent.” Keep still my beating heart.
Getting “smarter” is a comparative condition, and since we have no other world against which to contrast our intelligence, I guess it’s reasonable to want to improve the one we’re stuck with. And a daunting job it is. Much of the world lives in grinding poverty, and too many people contend for too few resources. We spend more on arms than healthcare and chronically slaughter each other. We behave contemptuously toward the natural life-support systems that sustain us. We reward global financial institutions that are riddled with fraud, and mutely accept that people without access to concentrated wealth have no practical say in governance. Plus, we may already have reached the point of no return on climate change. Not to worry.
The challenges are great, but IBM has a plan. Of course, like all solution advocates, its answers tend to mirror precisely what they happen to be selling. American car makers thought SUVs would be the answer to high gas prices and global warming. (Oops, didn’t work too well for GM.) Health insurance companies believe paying them $800 a month is far superior to a single payer system. It’s the way of the world: born agains put their faith in Jesus; Rastafarian prefer Haile Selassie. Go figure.
It’s not surprising therefore, that IBM puts its faith in technology. The three elements of that “instrumented, interconnected, and intelligent” mantra have one notable thing in common: they seek to make us more computer dependent than we already are. If increased dependence on technology seems well, duh, inevitable, there’s good reason. Here’s a scary statistic courtesy of IBM: in a few years there will be “a billion transistors for every human being.” Adding technology to everything is what IBM means by becoming “instrumented.” RFID chips alone will soon number 30 billion. Sensors are being embedded everywhere: “in cars, appliances, cameras, roads, pipelines–even in medicine and livestock.” Nothing like the crunch of an RFID chip with your burger.
IBM thinks the proliferation of sensors is a good thing, but if you’re older than the Internet, your mileage may vary. (Unless of course your name is Ray Kurzweil and you think you’ll cheat death by becoming instrumented yourself. Kurzweil believes that if he can just survive to about 2045–and he takes 150 supplements a day to boost his chances–the technology will be available to allow him to live happily ever after as a hybrid conscious computer.) Notwithstanding the possibility of life on a thumb drive, there are things gained and things lost when we rely on technology to make choices for us. Privacy is sacrificed to convenience; choices are more plentiful but can be manipulated; and conclusions about us are reached by people we’ve never met, based on information that may or may not be accurate.
Still, instrumenting has the potential to effect profound change, perhaps none more exciting than the possibility of democratizing education. North Carolina is using technology based in cloud computing–a form of computing in which scalable and virtualized resources are provided over the Internet–that allows every college and university student “to access the most advanced education content, software applications, and computing and storage resources.” Perhaps more significantly, the technology bridges the gap between poor and affluent school districts. “A first grader from a rural village can learn about geography through the same interactive 3-D animation and story-telling resources as her counterparts in a high-profile school district.” Since a lot of high school kids can’t find the Pacific Ocean on a map (hint, it’s the big blue thing to the left), this can only be good news. Our portion of the world is not likely to get smarter if our children continue cannon-balling to the bottom. In 2006, the children of 30 nations were contrasted. American kids ranked 24th in science, and 25th in math. At least we’re consistent.
Two years ago, Sam Palmisano, IBM’s capo di tutti capi, published an essay in Foreign Affairs in which he described the emergence of a new kind of corporation–the globally integrated enterprise, which he believed was replacing the multinational. If you have a hard time telling the difference, you’re not alone, but Palmisano was not just talking about the movement of goods, capital, and work across national boundaries. He was postulating that we are interconnected in a much more profound way, not only economically and technically, but socially as well. “In the last few years,” said Palmisano, speaking to the Masters of the Universe who occasionally meet at the Council on Foreign Relations, “our eyes have been opened to global climate change, and to the environmental and geopolitical issues surrounding energy. We have been made aware of global supply chains for food and medicine. And, of course, we entered the new century with the shock to our sense of security delivered by the attacks on 9/11.”
That corporations are only beginning to catch on to these problems “in the last few years” is troubling. But by using phrases like “our eyes have been opened,” and “we have been made aware of,” Palmisano is admitting that corporate America has failed miserably at managing these challenges and implying that we are collectively responsible for fixing them. And fixing them requires information. Palmisano envisions “a trillion connected and intelligent things” from pepperoni to pipelines. “The amount of information produced by the interaction of all those things will be unprecedented,” he says, and this portends the convergence of the physical and digital infrastructures.
Which brings us to the third “I,” intelligence. “New computing models” (purchasable by happy coincidence from our friends at IBM), “can handle the proliferation of end-user devices, sensors and actuators, and can connect them with back-end systems,” Palmisano assures us. “Combined with advanced analytics, those supercomputers can turn mountains of data into intelligence that can be translated into action, making our systems, processes and infrastructures more efficient, more productive and responsive–in a word, smarter.” Beyond education, IBM projects that its three “I” approach to a smarter planet will find practical application in a variety of sectors including: energy, traffic, food, infrastructure, retail, intelligence, government, banking, and telecom. Certainly no one would argue that government and banking could not use some new smarts.
It’s hard to know if the world will be getting smarter any time soon, but by taking a global perspective, IBM has shown itself to be strategically wise by claiming technological dominion over the world’s problems. And although smart systems alone may not create a smarter world, they can certainly fashion a more egalitarian one by smoothing the rough edges of globalization. We are, as Palmisano notes, “moving into the age of the globally integrated and intelligent economy, society and planet.” As the title of William Greider’s latest book perfectly summarizes: it’s One World, Ready or Not.
For those paranoid about one-world government, the good news is they have been unnecessarily worried about the U.N. There is no need for gun confiscation or black helicopters. This is how it will happen: one business, one sector, one nation at a time, until the interconnections are like a giant hairball, too big to untangle. To its credit, IBM recognizes that our problems have gotten so vast they can no longer be contained by borders. It’s time solutions grew in response.
IBM turns back on server history: To give and to hybrid (The Register)