Here's the setup. Author Mickey McManus is a visiting research fellow with Autodesk. He wrote an article for Autodesk's internal newsletter called the POV Dispatch. For more background, see POV Dispatch: Mickey McManus: There Be Dragons (Let's Go Over and Pet Them). Mickey's article is being shared in 3 parts. Here is part 1.
I've just gotten my feet on the ground on the shores of Autodesk Island. Every day seems to be a chance for something to pop out of a bush or fly overhead to surprise me as I explore this new place. But soon I'd like to set sail towards the undiscovered territory that is forming at the intersection of advanced research inside Autodesk and the future of design, technology, and business emerging in the outside world. So I thought I'd use my first POV Dispatch article to play out a mini essay around a topic that seems to be resolving itself as a "wicked problem" to be addressed in the near future.
For this essay, I'll setup the parameters, talk about my current thinking, and end with the big questions I've got at the moment. Just like the explorers of old, I'm grappling with how to draw a map for this new frontier and puzzling out where dragons might be lurking over the horizon. I'm just starting out so if this topic strikes your interest or you have a different perspective or insight you'd like to share, I'd love some help with navigation.
Wicked Topic #1 — The Internet of Things (Or What Happens When Angry Dreamliners Come Home to Roost?)
I've heard countless Internet of Things (IoT) startup pitches and seen an endless stream of businesses large and small mapping out their strategic plans for a connected world. We are still early in the hype cycle but the pace of change is accelerating. In the last year or two the range of these conversations has multiplied significantly. It's safe to say that for pragmatic reasons alone the era of disconnected products, services, environments, and systems is, or will soon be, over. Information is too valuable, connectivity is becoming too cheap, and Moore's Law is too persuasive to ignore. Plus there are likely all sorts of new forms of value that will shake up the world of business when we harness the information that up until now has been too hard to capture by traditional means. Our tools will have to enable designers, architects, engineers, and artists to build things that will be a part of a network from birth. Our customers will not be creating products designed from the top down to stand-alone, they'll be creating dragon's eggs that hatch and change and grow in hard to predict ways.
Why? Connected atoms, unlike the products of the first industrial revolution or the early information age, have a different range of consequences when things act up. Connected things will be able to remake reality via code and will effectively join the social network with opinions, facts, and stories of their own to tell. When people, things, environments, and the factories and machines that build them are all connected, the feedback loops alone promise to overwhelm our ability to predict what may happen next.
Even though we've had some systems for decades that were large-scale and interconnected, the size and complexity of all these things talking to us (and to each other) will be orders of magnitude more extreme. For a sample of what happens when feedback loops start acting in strange new ways, consider the flash crash of 2010 when the Dow Jones plunged about 1000 points in minutes. High-frequency trading algorithms battling it out in their own social network of sorts caused it. Jordan Brandt, one of our own resident futurists, points to a fascinating book called Dark Pools that explores the rise of algorithmic trading robots in the financial market and hints at even more frightening possibilities ahead. I wonder what will happen when that sort of thing happens with more mundane products as they join the network, and instead of being connected to financial markets, they are connected to our homes. Unfortunately, that has already started with thing-bots that turn IoT products into spam-generating nuisances. But that could escalate rapidly to more critical kinds of ripple effects. For instance, let's turn all the compressors in all the refrigerators in the world on right....now! Hmm. What would that do to the electrical grid?
I think we've started to see the first eggs of this dragon hatching, albeit indirectly. When phones became more than just something we used to call home, we saw the rise of smart phones that could run apps and report their location. In a way they were the first personal IoT devices — little mobile computers that could tell where we were and report back to us about what that meant. They had lots of little connected things, in the form of apps, hidden inside them, which could all start talking to each other. Not surprisingly, second-order effects soon came into play when some industrious jokesters posted a site called "Rob My House" to help aggregate location check-ins so thieves could have a better chance of getting ill-gotten booty. Or consider that cool connected thermostat: it's great until something takes it down during the snowstorm, and you're left without heat for two days. Understanding what's going wrong in a complex connected product and having peace of mind is hard when the software is slipping and changing out from under you, and even taking actions on your behalf.
Even farther up the spectrum from products in our pockets or in our home is the idea of products designed to be a part of us. For example, that wireless connection to a pacemaker is a miracle until someone with a little too much time on his hands decides to play a game of "Let's Electrocute the Neighbors," for fun or profit. Let's hope the trickster doesn't have a war-driving cat. These are examples of formerly disconnected products that are suddenly connected; and I'm not sure the designers of those offerings were able to think through the ramifications of such connection. In some of these cases the "just ship it, and we'll fix it in the next update" mentality may not work, nor will the "well if it we don't find a business model, we'll shut it down" attitude of casual web apps. IoT products will increasingly be installed in our homes and bodies, not on our phones. What may be even worse — or at least weirder — is a tendency I've noticed that crops up when people talk about the "Internet of Things." In their planning sessions, they wave their hands about how massive their success will be, but they usually only plan for the Internet of five or six things. It's what we feel comfortable counting up to for making our prototype. That means that each manufacturer or startup is solving for something they can think about from the top down. Anything over six or seven things is just "more."
At the other end of the spectrum, some products and certainly many environments are already deep into being treated as complex systems. Buildings that are in the works today represent the pinnacle of our efforts to shape the built world. They too will face a far greater challenge when the IoT starts layering on ever more complexity, but at least they've had to cope with large scale, intersecting systems for quite some time. The Boeing Dreamliner has to have "five nines" of reliability before the pilot will agree to get on the plane. It needs to be treated as a holistic system more akin to a small city than a traditional product. While this is considered a significant step change in the design and manufacture of an airplane, it's still based on a deep history of coping with complexity. Maybe it's worth thinking of this challenge through the lens of how a product that is suddenly connected fits on a broad spectrum from silly, casual, "Angry Bird"-style IoT products like the "Good Night Lamp" to Boeing Dreamliner scale ecosystems.
So a few big questions... Today we have tools that help us deal with physical geometry and even simulate how things will act under various environmental conditions. But is there also a way we could get better at dealing with the digital environment as well? In other words, designing for connectivity across atoms and bits, from inception? Get a sense of how a team's design decisions will play out when there are large numbers of their designs interacting with each other out in the world? Can we help people not only build something, but also give them a chance to "turn that thing on" within our software? How can we give our customers a "sense" of the IoT and where their product offering fits on the "Angry Birds to Boeing Dreamliners Continuum," so they don't create the next chapter in the Dark Pools story?
I haven't even really touched on the impact that digital manufacturing will have when it becomes part of the IoT. What could Autodesk's role be when connected products in the field sense and respond to how they are used and change what comes out of the factory next?
When I designed products and environments every day I often built them first as concept models in the Maya software package. I remember a feature called Paint Effects and how it was the most amazing revelation to me as a designer. It gave me a way to paint rich, budding swarms of complexity and then play with them en masse. Paint a forest, make it bloom, and then hit it with high winds — and watch how things interact; or paint a star field and fly through it. Could that sort of thinking — which requires massive quantities of things that sometimes seem to have minds of their own — be applied to the challenges of designing for the Internet of Things?
Autodesk DLS CTO Scott Borduin stopped by my desk the other day, and one of the first things out of his mouth was, "I heard someone say that software is the only product you buy that you expect to get better over time. What about when physical products start to play that game?" And that leads me to the last big question I have on this topic (at least for now). Authoring tools today are largely about the creation of some new thing, but what would happen if little bits of our authoring tools were built inside the final product? Mark Davis, Senior Director of Design Research at Autodesk's Office of the CTO, shared a little about his advanced research project with me and noted, "when a seed is planted for a tree, it's not the end, it's the beginning. If it's on a hillside, it digs its roots in to buttress its position. If it can't find water, it digs deeper, if it can't find the sun, it grows towards the light." What if, just like a newborn child, the final product was at least partially unknown at the time of its inception — more like a field of potential that could evolve and grow over time? This would involve the end user becoming an integral part of the authoring process as they exercise and shape the product or environment through use. How can Autodesk software enable/empower/amplify the success of a product through its lifecycle? We are already beginning to do this with BIM-based systems for environments, but could we also apply that sort of thinking to other classes of products as well? Are there dragon's eggs hidden out there somewhere for us to find?
I'm not sure I have any conclusions just yet. They are dragons I see on the horizon as we start to draw the map for the trip to the next frontier. I don't think they are a definitive list of challenges ahead, but I hope, at the very least, they've sparked a response that you'll want to discuss so we can get the hell off this island (I was promised a three hour tour.)
Thanks Mickey. You can reach Mickey at email@example.com.
Connectivity is alive in the lab.