By Jim Brazell
Sociologist Marshall McLuhan once said, “Each major period in history takes its character from the medium of communication used most widely at the time.” The emerging communications medium of the 21st century is robotics. Rather than walking, talking robots as we usually imagine, these robots are embedded into the infrastructure and machines of the 21st century.
Mainstream robotic systems today include the iPhone 4’s integrated gyroscope, the automatic brakes and drive-by-wire features such as electronic throttle control in automobiles, and the network of control valves enabling water to flow from the faucet when we brush our teeth in the morning. The motors and machines in our lives – the physical systems – have mated with the cyber systems (software, computer and network) creating a fourth generation of computers.
Fourth Generation Computing – Cyber-Physical Systems
In 1965 Gordon Moore of Intel famously proclaimed the number of transistors on a chip would double approximately every two years. Intel progressed from 1971 with 2,300 transistors on the Intel 4004 processor, to 2.6 billion transistors on the x86 Intel 10 Core Xeon chip today. This time pacing of the market has become known as Moore’s Law.
Quietly over the past two decades, computerized motors known as intelligent actuators have experienced similar performance improvements. Tesar’s Law asserts the same thing that happened with Moore’s Law in computer performance is also happening in tightly coupled computers and motors.
Del Tesar, Chair and Director of the Robotics Research Group at the University of Texas at Austin explains, “The eight orders of magnitude increase in computer performance over the past two decades reflected by Moore’s Law is accompanied by an eight order of magnitude performance increase in tightly coupled computers and motors.”
The mainframe, mini and PC are the first three generations of computers typically discussed in the modern history of computing. Cyber-physical computing is the fourth generation of computing. Cyber-physical systems use computers, software and/or networks (or their logic) to monitor and/or direct the operation of physical processes and/or biological systems (or vice versa).
Cyber-physical systems are ushering in a new economic era representing a shift from the dominance of F.W. Taylor’s “Principles of Scientific Management” that are the basis of industrial business practice to new business processes based on non-linear systems and complexity science. The promise of this new economic era includes new kinds of products and services, new methods of customer service, greater productivity, new forms of human-to-machine interaction and, even human-machine integration (as exemplified by the pace maker, cochlear ear implant, and similar systems).
The Future is Here: Internet 2.0
Cyber-physical computing expands the networks reach to include new business processes and domains of influence. Ushering in a new era of commerce, cyber-physical systems expand and widen the network to include physical systems and processes. Examples include:
In these examples, physical and virtual worlds are integrated, delivering a new kind of space – robotspace.
In the cloud, Audax Health Solutions is a hub for distributed gadgets and apps for health, privacy, and human performance. And, ThingSpeak from ioBridge is an open source project enabling devices such as thermostats, security systems, cell phones, cars, toys and home appliances to send tweet-sized messages over the Internet – a Facebook for robots.
Conclusion: A New Economic Era
The net effect of Tesar’s Law over the next decade will be the transformation of virtually all industries by increasing the footprint of automation from the traditional information appliances of PC’s, phones and tablets, to virtually all machines and physical processes subject to computer control and the network’s reach.
In the end, we may finally discover what post-industrialization is – a new economic era based on monitoring and control of economic processes at a scale that has been unimaginable until now. This new era will be marked by a widening of the network to encompass physical and biological processes, new forms of advertising, commerce and business, new threats and opportunities in cyber security (and privacy) and integration of products and services so the two become indistinguishable. Watch for the emergence of subscription pay services connected to physical products such as toys and other mechanical devices as well as subscriptions for new services tied to physiological processes such as driving, exercise, and health.
Cyber-physical systems are available today – including applications in exercise, health care, business, security and inter-personal communication – illustrating an age of robotics has emerged to displace the “Information Age.” Rather than walking, talking robots, cyber-physical systems represent the evolution of robotics from the bottom of the evolutionary scale, up. Today, the mainstream robots in our lives range from cars to toasters; however, soon, cyber-physical systems will redefine civil life, commerce and even our concept of communication in the 21st century.
Jim Brazell is a technology forecaster, strategist and public speaker who has led research and development projects in technology for business, education and the military. http://www.jimbrazell.com/
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