Machine Net

SAN FRANCISCO (01/30/2000) - "In the bowling alley of tomorrow, there will even be machines that wear rental shoes and throw the ball for you. Your sole function will be to drink beer." -- Dave Barry A lot of people have predicted that a time will come when machines become more important than humans. What few predicted was that machines would seize power on the Net.

In fact, more and more machines are using sophisticated artificial intelligence programs to talk to one another online - without human interference. Until now, the Net has been the most human-centric technology ever. Starting with the browser, every new Internet development has made it easier to send e-mail, surf the Web, shop online and conduct business. Few technologies have worked so hard to be human-friendly.

Now it's the machines' turn to catch up. Within the next few years, Internet connections between machines will outnumber the connections made by man.

Just as the Net has reshaped business, so it will reshape relationships between machines. Air conditioners will send messages to the electric company. Truck fleets will stay linked to headquarters. Wired VCR clocks will set themselves.

Sending simple messages from one machine to another is just the beginning. At the experiment stage is a gizmo that reads e-mail for U.S. congressmen and summarizes the correspondence by issue - a clever device that elected officials probably wouldn't want to boast about.

Such newly empowered machines suggest the Net is headed in a direction we haven't previously considered. The growing adoption of handheld devices has made it possible to think in terms of communicating through the Net anywhere, anytime. What may be more revolutionary is the notion of machines and databases communicating without our help.

Want to make a virtual visit to the future? Visit www.echelon.com/demo, where you can use your mouse to pull down the blinds and turn on a lamp in a mock living room at the headquarters of network control designer Echelon in Palo Alto, Calif. It's a first step toward a future where you can log on at work to see if you left the iron on in your bedroom - and turn it off if you did. And it's not far from there to putting refrigerators, cars and phones online.

Industrial and commercial applications involving power may be the first to market. GE Lighting, for instance, is exploring "intelligent office" control systems, connecting lighting; heating, ventilation and air conditioning; fire and security; and electrical systems. Expect IT managers to find themselves in charge of utilities, too.

The current incarnation of the Net is all about bringing information to us. But as machines demand more online time, and then become the most voracious users of bandwidth, the Net will reconfigure itself to cater to their needs.

This opens an immense and still embryonic market. Surging demand will surface for products that let machines do things better and faster than we can. With increasingly advanced artificial intelligence software, vending machines will let delivery vans know when they need to be replenished; copy machines will notify overnight delivery computers when an order is ready for pickup; manufacturers' shop floors will use digital cameras and the Internet to coordinate production schedules. In homes, simple devices will set electricity use based on time of day and temperature. For consumers, these new machines will make user-friendly PCs seem hostile by comparison.

Who - or what - uses the Net won't be the only change. It has long been the conventional wisdom that the Internet was primarily about people - and until now, that has largely been true. The Internet's playing field, however, is about to become a lot more crowded and complex.

For many apps, the PC remains a slow, complex tool. A machine-to-machine dialogue promises to change that. A customer-friendly era is coming online - and some of those customers will be machines.

Cathy Benko heads Deloitte Consulting's e-business practice.

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