Software, hardware, everywhere

Real and virtual are crashing together. On one side is hardware that acts like software: IP-addressable, controllable with JavaScript APIs, able to be stitched into loosely-coupled systems—the mashups of a new era. On the other is software that’s newly capable of dealing with the complex subtleties of the physical world—ingesting huge amounts of data, learning from it, and making decisions in real time.

The result is an entirely new medium that’s just beginning to emerge. We can see it in Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Spaxels, which use drones to render a three-dimensional pixel field; in Baxter, which layers emotive software onto an industrial robot so that anyone can operate it safely and efficiently; in OpenXC, which gives even hobbyist-level programmers access to the software in their cars; in SmartThings, which ties Web services to light switches.

The new medium is something broader than terms like “Internet of Things,” “Industrial Internet,” or “connected devices” suggest. It’s an entirely new discipline that’s being built by software developers, roboticists, manufacturers, hardware engineers, artists, and designers.

Ten years ago, building something as simple as a networked thermometer required some understanding of electrical engineering. Now it’s a Saturday-afternoon project for a beginner. It’s a shift we’ve already seen in programming, where procedural languages have become more powerful and communities have arisen to offer free help with programming problems. As the blending of hardware and software continues, the physical world will become democratized: the ranks of people who can address physical challenges from lots of different backgrounds will swell.

The outcome of all of this combining and broadening, I hope, will be a world that’s safer, cleaner, more efficient, and more accessible. It may also be a world that’s more intrusive, less private, and more vulnerable to ill-intentioned interference. That’s why it’s crucial that we develop a strong community from the new discipline.

Solid, which Joi Ito and I will present on May 21 and 22 next year, will bring members of the new discipline together to discuss this new medium at the blurred line between real and virtual. We’ll talk about design beyond the computer screen; software that understands and controls the physical world; new hardware tools that will become the building blocks of the connected world; frameworks for prototyping and manufacturing that make it possible for anyone to create physical devices; and anything else that touches both the concrete and abstract worlds.

Solid’s call for proposals is open to the public, as is the call for applications to the Solid Fellowships—a new program that comes with a stipend, a free pass to Solid, and help with travel expenses for students and independent innovators.

The business implications of the new discipline are just beginning to play out. Software companies are eyeing hardware as a way to extend their offerings into the physical world—think, for instance, of Google’s acquisition of Motorola and its work on a driverless car—and companies that build physical machines see software as a crucial component of their products. The physical world as a service, a business model that’s something like software as a service, promises to upend the way we buy and use machines, with huge implications for accessibility and efficiency. These types of service frameworks, along with new prototyping tools and open-source models, are making hardware design and manufacturing vastly easier.

A few interrelated concepts that I’ve been thinking about as we’ve sketched out the idea for Solid:

  • APIs for the physical world. Abstraction, modularity, and loosely-coupled services—the characteristics that make the Web accessible and robust—are coming to the physical world. Open-source libraries for sensors and microcontrollers are bringing easy-to-use and easy-to-integrate software interfaces to everything from weather stations to cars. Networked machines are defining a new physical graph, much like the Web’s information graph. These models are starting to completely reorder our physical environment. It’s becoming easier to trade off functionalities between hardware and software; expect the proportion of intelligence residing in software to increase over time.
  • Manufacturing made frictionless. Amazon’s EC2 made it possible to start writing and selling software with practically no capital investment. New manufacturing-as-a-service frameworks bring the same approach to building things, making factory work fast and capital-light. Development costs are plunging, and it’s becoming easier to serve niches with specialized hardware that’s designed for a single purpose. The pace of innovation in hardware is increasing as the field becomes easier for entrepreneurs to work in and financing becomes available through new platforms like Kickstarter. Companies are emerging now that will become the Amazon Web Services of manufacturing.
  • Software intelligence in the physical world. Machine learning and data-driven optimization have revolutionized the way that companies work with the Web, but the kind of sophisticated knowledge that Amazon and Netflix have accumulated has been elusive in the offline world. Hardware lets software reach beyond the computer screen to bring those kinds of intelligence to the concrete world, gathering data through networked sensors and exerting real-time control in order to optimize complicated systems. Many of the machines around us could become more efficient simply through intelligent control: a furnace can save oil when software, knowing that homeowners are away, turns down the thermostat; a car can save gas when Google Maps, polling its users’ smartphones, discovers a traffic jam and suggests an alternative route—the promise of software intelligence that works above the level of a single machine. The Internet stack now reaches all the way down to the phone in your pocket, the watch on your wrist, and the thermostat on your wall.
  • Every company is a software company. Software is becoming an essential component of big machines for both the builders and the users of those machines. Any company that owns big capital machines needs to get as much out of them as possible by optimizing their operation with software, and any company that builds machines must improve and extend them with layers of software in order to be competitive. As a result, a software startup with promising technology might just as easily be bought by a big industrial company as by a Silicon Valley software firm. This has important organizational, cultural, and competency impact.
  • Complex systems democratized. The physical world is becoming accessible to innovators at every level of expertise. Just as it’s possible to build a Web page with only a few hours’ learning, it’s becoming easier for anyone to build things, whether electronic or not. The result: realms like the urban environment that used to be under centralized control by governments and big companies are now open to innovation from anyone. New economic models and communities will emerge in the physical world just as they’ve emerged online in the last twenty years.
  • The physical world as a service. Anything from an Uber car to a railroad locomotive can be sold as a service, provided that it’s adequately instrumented and dispatched by intelligent software. Good data from the physical world brings about efficient markets, makes cheating difficult, and improves quality of service. And it will revolutionize business models in every industry as service guarantees replace straightforward equipment sales. Instead of just selling electricity, a utility could sell heating and cooling—promising to keep a homeowner’s house at 70 degrees year round. That sales model could improve efficiency and quality of life, bringing about incentive for the utility to invest in more efficient equipment and letting it take advantage of economies of scale.
  • Design after the screen. Our interaction with software no longer needs to be mediated through a keyboard and screen. In the connected world, computers gather data through multiple inputs outside of human awareness and intuit our preferences. The software interface is now a dispersed collection of conventional computers, mobile phones, and embedded sensors, and it acts back onto the world through networked microcontrollers. Computing happens everywhere, and it’s aware of physical-world context.
  • Software replaces physical complexity. A home security system is no longer a closed network of motion sensors and door alarms; it’s software connected to generic sensors that decides when something is amiss. In 2009, Alon Halevy, Peter Norvig, and Fernando Pereira wrote that having lots and lots of data can be more valuable than having the most elegant model. In the connected world, having lots and lots of sensors attached to some clever software will start to win out over single-purpose systems.

These are some rough thoughts about an area that we’ll all spend the next few years trying to understand. This is an open discussion, and we welcome thoughts on it from anyone.

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