I hear more and more about intelligent systems. Are they different from M2M and the Internet of Things? In a recent Design West, one of the themes was intelligent systems. What is it, and how is it different from M2M and the Internet of Things? I attended one informative session by speakers from a research firm, a professional organization, and vendors.
I may cover that session later but offer a few takeaways now:
- Many people who were surveyed expect the market for intelligent systems to grow, but they are not using them yet.
- Application vendors would like to concentrate on applications rather than the lower support layers. In other words, concentrate on your core value and outsource the rest.
So I wanted to talk to someone who does the lower layers, a.k.a. infrastructure. I was lucky enough to talk to Wind River.
Although I never used their VxWorks before, I knew the company before it became a part of the Intel family. They were a specialist in embedded systems with the VxWorks operating system and platforms, including middleware. Then they expanded their product lines to include their versions of Linux and Android. They are now providing infrastructures for intelligent systems for end devices, although they do cover other areas, like gateways and networking, as well.
End devices come in many sizes and functions, as shown in the figure above, such as smart vending machines and digital signage. Smart vending machines can collect data about which products sell well, and signal when stock gets low. The general trend is that end devices and equipment are getting smarter or more intelligent, which is the driving force behind intelligent systems. Wind River is addressing the need for those end devices to be more intelligent.
To prepare for a meeting with Wind River, I read several articles by the company, published here, and listened to a Wind River presentation.
Presentation made by Wind River (Source: Wind River)
The following is a summary of my conversation with Wind River. I hope it helps my readers understand intelligent systems, still a very young market.
What are the differences among M2M, intelligent systems, and the Internet of Things?
I started to hear about M2M a few years ago, and a little after that the Internet of Things became widely known. Finally, intelligent systems appeared on my radar screen. I just want to note that there is no entry for intelligent systems in Wikipedia. The current entry refers to a company with that name. In that entry, there is a link saying, “For the computer science phenomenon, see artificial intelligence.” But I do not think that the intelligent systems discussed here are the same as artificial intelligence. This may not mean a lot, but it indicates that the term is so new that there is no independent entry for it in Wikipedia yet.
Are they different? Based on my quick search and Wind River’s definition, M2M refers to technologies to connect end devices via networks, whether wired or wireless (PAN, LAN, or WAN). But the difference or the similarity of the Internet of Things and intelligent systems is not clear. Actually, those three things are being used loosely in the marketplace, as this field is so new and is still evolving. My own take is as follows. M2M focuses on device connectivity. Connecting end devices became possible, and that in itself was a big deal. And then it led to a new phenomenon called the Internet of Things. Then people realized that connecting devices made the entire system more intelligent because the injection of intelligence became possible, hence the term intelligent systems. As we have a more connected society, whether the connection is human to human, human to machine, or machine to machine, more intelligence will be injected at many places.
So it seems that connectivity led to the formation of intelligence. Then what is intelligence?
What is intelligence?
Does connectivity alone generate intelligence?
Take my favorite example, a smart meter. The power meter you and I have at home used not to be very smart. It simply measured our power consumption and recorded it. A human meter reader showed up once a month to read it to find out how much we consumed, regardless of when we consumed it. A smart meter collects power consumption information every hour and sends it to your regional utility. I challenged Wind River by saying that adding connectivity to a meter alone does not generate intelligence. A meter with connectivity does not seem any smarter than a traditional meter. Both measure power consumption. I have a tendency to nitpick some details that many people take for granted. Their answer was very good and really articulated what intelligent systems are all about. They said connectivity makes it possible to inject intelligence because it is not possible to do so without connectivity.
Let’s take an example they used. By adding connectivity to a meter, it is now possible to implement new things, including the following:
- Time-of-use pricing, which can distinguish when you use power. The price during the night is the cheapest, and the price at peak time (usually early afternoon) is the highest.
- Smarter (optimized) operations of the power grid that may eliminate the need to build more power plants.
- A service delivery platform to the home.
A smart meter alone could not realize these functions. But its connectivity injects a new set of functions into the entire power grid, and that is the injection of intelligence that makes the power grid system more intelligent and brings it closer to being an intelligent system.
Is there any other intelligence? In addition to the above, data collected from smart meters and other parts of the power grid will be analyzed with analytics packages and useful information may be derived. That information can be used to improve the operations and maintenance of the power grid. That is intelligence. But Wind River is not currently addressing this type of intelligence.
What’s wrong with the roll-your-own approach?
As I said before, unlike the IT market, each vertical market needs a specific infrastructure, including many different kinds of networking protocols. Wind River recommends that you not implement your own solution but use the infrastructure of someone whose job it is to develop and maintain such infrastructures. Those in a specific vertical market should concentrate on their applications (core value) rather than infrastructures (nonessential value). This is the same message I heard from one of the vendors during the early intelligent systems market analysis session. This sounds very reasonable, and I think their message is a good one.
But I have two reservations. One is specificity. If you are in a vertical market and require a specific infrastructure but no one can provide it, what can you do? Like OSIsoft, Wind River monitors the market and adds necessary infrastructure support as needed. No single company could support each and every interface. What reasonably can be done is to select major ones and support them. The next figure shows a partial list of standards for different markets supported by Wind River.
A partial list of standards for different markets supported
by Wind River (Source Wind River)
My other reservation is that Wind River and the Intel family are not the only company that provides such a solution. What if, in the future, you need to interact with organizations that use other vendors’ solutions? There is no guarantee that the systems will be interoperable.
I know it is not a fair question when the market is still in its infancy. From my past involvement with the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) by NIST, which defines standards for smart grid technology interoperability, I know that standardization efforts will be required. Towards that end, Intel has announced its Intelligent Systems Framework (ISF). I hope that over time, through input from others, such a framework will grow up to be a standard that allows any end device and equipment to be freely interoperable in intelligent systems.
Energy efficiency by intelligent systems
Do intelligent systems contribute to energy efficiency or energy conservation?
Wind River stated here:
Ecological Considerations: Machines can perform power management tasks with finer precision and faster response times than manual, human-dependent systems – saving energy, prioritizing usage, setting policies for response to outages, and the like.
That says it all.
Can we be optimistic?
I was somewhat pessimistic about the settlement for interoperability in the near future, as I have experienced SGIP’s work and see many existing standards across different vertical markets. Wind River was bullish for such a settlement. I knew it was not a fair question but asked Wind River about a timeframe. They said they were not certain but thought that in five to ten years some kind of movement would occur for interoperability. I certainly hope they are right. I, for one, want to have such interoperability to exploit real intelligent systems that not only make our society convenient but also promote energy efficiency.