The Real Impact of Movement from Mechanisms to Networks in the Industrial Internet

The future disruptive impacts of the industrial internet in areas such as transportation, healthcare, energy and manufacturing are not best clarified by imagining machines talking to other machines. Remember that our panoply of machines were created through imagining mechanical ways of accomplishing tasks in the physical world. Each machine was given a set of tasks, and then powered up in isolation to perform those tasks in its own silent, windowless world; all of the communication and visibility were reserved for the humans. To give machines a place in human culture, society and language, metaphors were drawn from the physical world we knew before the machines. Thus, for example, there was first the horse, and with the industrial revolution came the iron horse. The iron horse was of course not a horse with an engine; it was something new. In the same way, by reimagining how to accomplish physical tasks with intelligent networks, we will not just be giving computer brains to the world of machines created after the industrial revolution; we will be creating an entirely new world of machines, an entirely new physical world. Thus the self-driving car is not really a car; it is a set of nodes in intelligent networks that will probably look less and less like a car. And Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is a disruptive transportation idea desperate for a metaphor from the contemporary physical world to make it sound more attractive than a pea-shooter or vacuum tube filled with people (without which it just keeps spawning more jokes like that is powered completely by the screams of its passengers).

Remember in The Right Stuff when astronauts Shepard, Glenn, Carpenter and Cooper figured out that the heroic pilots were not viewed as necessary in the space capsules, that men were being sent up “to do a monkey’s work?” That was a moment when it suddenly became apparent that the design of a space ship, with its many networked connections to ground control, need not feature the proud pilot with his hands on all the controls in the front seat with visibility through the windows of everything ahead as in an unconnected plane or car. In The Right Stuff, the pilots made a pact to create the heroic role of the astronaut whether the space program needed it or not, bringing the role of the pilot before the industrial internet into the space program. They struck a late, effective blow for human heroes, like John Henry did with the steam drill.

In the absence of such a pact, and in the absence of radical change like a Hyperloop, take a glance at a plain vanilla passenger airliner in the age of the industrial internet, and it begins to change before your eyes. In theory, any part of the plane receives information not just from controls at the hands and feet of the pilot but from any other parts of the plane and everywhere else useful in the world. Combined information from sensors all over the plane and from other planes create intelligible patterns that in turn trigger adjustments to improve performance and immediate response to any problems. So there is no need for a compartment up front in which pilots sit and into which terrorists try to break; indeed, there is no longer much that anyone on the plane can do change the plane’s route without changing the minds of human and/or digital controllers on the ground. The very connectivity that protects against human errors and threats and surprise component failures also poses many new security risks that need to be addressed.

So the industrial internet gives us the opportunity and the need to remake the physical world and our relationship to it, to replace all the machines with new networks and the machines they need. Like the industrial revolution, this is an opportunity to remake the economy entirely, with much greater economic impact than even huge increases in productivity and reliability and huge savings from greater efficiency. The shapes and designs of things that make sense in a disconnected world are not the designs that make sense in an intelligent networked world. What is more, big data can identify all of the cost-drivers, the safety and security issues, the bottlenecks to productivity and efficiency and the privacy issues in innovative and surprising ways, showing where the greatest ROI lies in reinventing the physical world in which an organization lives and which it serves. That is disruptive innovation based on networked intelligence, moving beyond both the Six Sigma-based sustaining innovation that isolates and vastly improves processes and the entrepreneurial disruptive innovation based mostly on insight and guts. Already many companies are using big data to develop new products and services; in a short while many more will be using it to transform themselves and their business environments, together with our physical environments.

How can one quantify the economic impact of a trend that builds a completely new infrastructure of networks of new machines around the world, and changes our relationships to that network and those machines fundamentally? The industrial revolution helped society escape the Malthusian trap not only by accelerating economic growth to faster than the prior growth rate of the population, but by greatly decreasing birth rates. Much bigger productivity gain surprises are in store with the industrial internet, because the industrial world before the internet did not become the effective, interactive TEACHER of everyone it touched….


Horse and Train by Alex Colville. Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License