The “what could be / should be / will be” discussions regarding the future light up the imagination with possibilities. It is fun to laugh at those who got it wrong and marvel at those who got it right. These discussions inspire those of us developing technologies to push the envelope with the hope that we can leave our mark on the future. IBM’s smarter planet commercials give us a glimpse into the visions of the future that IBM is betting on. Their spotlight on Smarter Machines: See Problems Before They Happen touches on predictive maintenance and making machines self-aware of when they need repair. What will the future hold for the men and women responsible for fixing our precious devices?
Here is a not-so-bold prediction; in the future our stuff is still going to break. Sorry, but indestructible and economical just do not play nice together now or in the future. The appliance and electronic repair industry is currently a $25B industry in the US alone, and this industry is not at risk of going away within the next few lifetimes. That does not mean change is not coming. To the contrary, big changes are on the way. The Internet of Things will profoundly impact the service and repair industry as physical objects and not just people make up the internet composition. This will lead to some nifty convenience. When your washing machine is on the fritz, you will not have to wait for the service guy to show up and dig around in your laundry room for two hours only to tell you that it will take two weeks before the replacement part can be delivered. Instead, your service guy will remotely log into your washing machine and virtually dig around inside of it, accurately observing what is working well and what needs to be repaired. The process will take far less time because nothing will have to be physically touched and no one will have to drive (or fly or teleport or whatever we use to travel in the future) to your house to diagnose the problem. The actual repair will still require a physical presence, but the amount of time that a stranger is in your house will be greatly reduced.
Better yet, before your washing machine even breaks, your service guy will call you (or perhaps send you a virtual little sticky note to your 12th generation Google Glasses) to let you know that something inside your washing machine may break within the next two months, and you should have preventative maintenance to prevent downtime. Of course, you will think he is full of crap and just wanting to make money off of you until your washing machine actually breaks.
The kicker is that the service guy who diagnosis the problem will not be an actual “human guy”. Device diagnostics will be pushed to the cloud where the collective horsepower of a zillion smart nodes will work together to accurately predict device failure and pinpoint root cause. The elegance of this approach will not be reserved just for our high-end machines like cars, planes, and molecular transporters. All of our devices that we classify as too expensive to simply throw away when they break will take advantage of this concept of “Cloud Node Diagnostics”. The evolutionary steps that will make this a possibility are already starting to happen. To steal a line from the IBM commercials, that is what I am working on.