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EDITORIAL

Intelligent Systems – The Power of a Name

TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

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The German novelist Thomas Mann once remarked on the power of names. “There is something mysterious about names,” he said in his novel, Joseph and His Brothers. He noted that having the ability to name something gives one almost the power of conjuring, of creation. There is a phenomenon we have been witnessing taking shape for some time that has now received a name. That name is “Intelligent Systems,” and the wizard who has bestowed it is Intel.

Many of us have at least been aware of the evolution that is taking place in our world due to the proliferation of computer intelligence, from the old days of mainframes to the ubiquitous PC to the incredibly vast array of embedded systems on out to some of the tiniest and everyday devices like toasters and gas pumps. And we have been aware of the spread of connectivity that has spawned expressions like “the Cloud” and “the Internet of Things.” We are aware that connectivity and intelligence are spreading, but now things are coming into focus with some interesting implications for the future... and a name that can sharpen that focus.

For a good long time we have steadfastly differentiated between what we call “embedded systems” and the rest of the world, mostly such things as consumer electronics and IT. Thanks to the vast spread of intelligence and connectivity, such distinctions are increasingly difficult to make. What we are coming into, thanks to this proliferation, is a world flooded with enormous amounts of data. That data is generated by devices from the smallest remote sensor network to large enterprise computing centers and everything in between. Ironically, the existence of such huge volumes of data is demanding even more computing power and performance simply to deal with it. 

Embedded devices and the Internet of things are definitely a part of this development but are not the only part. This is especially true since most consumer devices now include microprocessors or microcontrollers and have Internet connectivity. On the other end, that connectivity delivers and requires data that comes via huge server farms or enterprise installations that move data and form the basis for an expanding field of creative applications—all of which form a feedback loop for more intelligence and more connectivity. Consumer devices like smartphones and tablets can now be used to remotely control and monitor industrial processes, medical instrumentation and more. The data they deliver for their intended applications serves as fodder for creative ideas to combine and use it in new ways for even more applications. And we’re just getting started.

What Intel, to its credit, has done is to articulate this phenomenon with a simple name and to make some concrete moves toward common methods of adapting and managing connected devices and the “Big Data” that they represent with what it calls its Intelligent Systems Framework. In addition, it has been lining up partners including OEMs, system vendors and system integrators into an organized effort—one that may well result in future industry standards. Now, the cynical may dismiss such moves as marketing strategies and it would be idiotic not to recognize such motivations. But this phenomenon is far too big for one company to “own,” even a company the size of Intel.

On the other hand, it took a company of Intel’s stature to articulate some of the large tasks that need to be done to make a new world of ever-growing data manageable and to initiate ways of moving toward that. Many people and many organizations will need to work in a sense of mutual interest and shared creativity to build out a world of data that can benefit everyone. And here I realize that I am repeatedly using the word “data” rather than “devices.” Devices, while essential, are also almost incidental to the generation and flow of data because the data, and the control it bestows, will be what we concentrate on to build applications. Devices (and servers, etc.) will be enlisted as needed to serve those ends.

The world has changed. It was sneaking up on all of us for some time, and now that we can possibly agree on what to call it, we will all be able to more fully describe it and give it direction. That direction will not be determined by one group, company or individual. It will involve many issues of performance, connectivity, security and data management. The synergistic effect will be that people using data for purposes they originally intended will be able to use that data and then be inspired by data generated from different and perhaps unexpected sources to create even newer and unexpected applications. Someone once described standards as “agreement on the shape of a stadium in which to compete.” For the benefit of the industry as a whole, the concept of Intelligent Systems should evolve into an environment where innovation and creativity can prosper. It is a very big concept and a field of vast opportunity.

There is a lot to do.