On the Shoulders of Giants

Feb. 19, 2015
Considering what we know about the acceptance and adoption of technology in general—and in the industrial sector, specifically—how will the Industrial Internet of Things fare in the near term?

I wonder what Alan Turing would make of the Internet of Things (IoT). Actually I don’t wonder…I know. He’d recognize it immediately and wonder why it took us so long to get here. I suspect he may even smile at our low-level thinking of having cars talking to fridges simply because they can.

Turing was the English mathematician who, in 1936, wrote a paper called “On Computable Numbers.” He acknowledged the giants on whose shoulders he was standing, but his work was groundbreaking nevertheless. It found early application in the decoding of the Enigma cyphers during World War II, using machines instead of the human brain. His work introduced many phrases we would recognize today, such as “machine states,” “discrete” and “continuous.” It even posited the word “computer,” although it referred to a person doing computations.

He conceived the idea of a “universal machine,” a device that could undertake any task simply by being configured to do so. Sound familiar?

Turing’s genius laid not so much in being able to imagine the abstract. His uniqueness was in being able to merge that with the physical, using a soldering iron when necessary. His early machines were electromechanical, relying on relays and rotors.
Turing conceived of his machine as standalone, performing finite tasks.

With networking still a decade or two away, he probably could not imagine how machines would be connected across continents, via a Cloud. But I think he’d see IoT as a natural evolution of “Computable Numbers.” And he’d see the Internet as potentially a truly “universal machine.” But he’d dismiss “ubiquitous connectivity” for its own sake and start thinking about interoperating systems strategically.

And if that sounds familiar, you might have heard it in the context of Industry 4.0—the German national strategy to open up new business models for manufacturing.

The transition from strategy to practical application, however, will rely greatly on the development and adoption of standards. The Industrial Internet Consortium is focused on commercial standards, though mainly in the IT space. The Open Interconnect Consortium appears to have broader objectives, and may be more relevant to automation.

But we have all seen how standards can be affected by vested interests. It’s taken a decade or more for Real Time Industrial Ethernet to reach critical mass. The move to digital is still happening for many, 25 years after it started. I am also beginning to hear negative comments from major vendors about IoT, especially now that the great elephant in the room—security—is being viewed in a different light following the Sony debacle.

Not for many years have I seen so much written by so many about something so indeterminate and wide-ranging. The year 2014 surely saw the Peak of Inflated Expectations reached with respect to IoT. Does this mean that a Trough of Disillusionment is looming for 2015?

One can see the relevance of IoT, or at least Big Data and the Cloud, in areas not touched yet by extensive networking or automation, especially where long-term monitoring of critical detail was previously difficult. I suspect the Slope of Enlightenment will reach us eventually, meaning that the Plateau of Productivity is on the horizon.

Let’s hope it brings not merely the 1 percent gains often spoken of in relation to IoT, but something deeper and more strategic—something that would make Turing feel proud.

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