There is bad news for fans of science fiction movies like Star Trek and Star Wars: the near future does not promise “warp speed” that can take us to the next galaxy in a few blinks of an evolved eye or three. The good news is that we are about to take another warp speed-like leap into the future.
“We’ve barely started – we’re in the first hour of the first day of the first week of the networking revolution,” says Dr Marcus Weldon, chief technical officer of Alcatel–Lucent and president of Bell Labs, which could be said to have started all the trouble with its founder’s invention of the telephone back in the 19th century.
He was speaking at the recent launch in London of the first book by Bell Labs, entitled “The Future X Network”, which argues that automation is about to enter a new era, driven by massive network capacity and interconnectedness. The result will be a revolution across numerous sectors and disciplines, from vehicles to medicine to tourism.
“In each of the industrial revolutions there was a measure of automation. But, most of the time, automation was still local, and a local control room managing the local process. That’s still the world of today.
“What we’re talking about is extreme or remote automation, or the virtualisation of automation. You can run anything from anywhere, so you could create a virtual production line which would have virtual products built in one place, and printed on a 3D printing machine elsewhere.”
This level of networking will be made possible by massive increases in data availability, speed and analysis.
And there is an additional factor that will ensure this is not your great-grandfather’s automation.
“Automation has been an element of previous industrial revolutions, but this is the era of intelligent automation of everything. The Internet of Things is becoming a tired term, because is makes it sound like its just about networking of things. The Automation of Everything (AoE) is what it’s about, in that you have things being networked, but also the intelligence built into it.”
Weldon believes that the AoE will be routinely used to solve problems.
“Let’s start with basic examples: if you place instruments throughout the water supply and immediately know where water is leaking out of conduits and water facilities, you can optimise that infrastructure. Twenty per cent of the world’s water supply is lost through leaks. If you can see where the leaks are as they occur, you can improve the water supply by 20 per cent and, in many countries, by much more than that.
“You can say the same of roads and traffic. If you can optimise traffic flow, you create more efficient use of infrastructure. If you have more intelligent automation of that system, you get more bang for your buck from investment. If you can get 20 or 40 per cent more bang for your buck, that’s free money, just by adding intelligent control.”
Investment in fibre optic networks is an obvious move for creating the supporting infrastructure for more efficiency in all systems, says Weldon. Not only does it result in a greater return on investment, but frees up capital for expanding infrastructure.
“You can add massive amounts of new capacity that allows you to do new things. I may have enough wireless capacity to put sensors along road or railways, but maybe not enough to have 100 sensors per person. But if make it more efficient, then add and add and add, that’s how you create a digital society. That’s how you move from today to tomorrow.”
He gives examples ranging from virtual tours of the Kruger Park to mining companies in Australia being able to analyse massive amounts of data on site rather than having to transport it physically to other locations for analysis. Not only is the analysis faster, but far more can be discovered through applying far more powerful analytics.
“We’re not even talking about new data; they just can’t afford to operate on all the data they have! All kinds of stuff comes for ‘free’ if you’re willing to make the investment.”
The challenge is no longer the technology to make all of this possible. The real challenge is having the vision for a future that is built on the foundation of this technology. In the absence of both the vision and the foundation, one can throw any amount of tablets and gadgets at schools and students, for example, and see little return on investment.