The online fortune tellers

10 Feb 2003

What will the internet look like 10 years from now? It’s one of the questions that Glover Ferguson (pictured) and his colleagues from Accenture Technology Labs are currently grappling with.

I caught up with Ferguson during a week-long visit to Europe during which he met with several important clients. Word is that when the Stanford industrial engineering graduate begins to talk, clients listen and like what they hear.

It’s not hard to figure out why. Ferguson speaks quickly and fluently, his conversation laced with sound bites and compelling examples of the power, more than that, the sheer inevitability of the information revolution we are living every day.

Accenture has three research and development labs – two in the US and one in France – staffed by 130 scientists and researchers. If the word laboratory conjures up an image of boffins trying to figure out the meaning of life, Accenture’s science projects are rooted a bit more in the real world.

“The mission of the labs is explicitly to invent new business opportunities and applications from emerging technologies,” explains Ferguson.

“We build things,” he adds, as if to emphasise that the labs’ output is not limited to esoteric concepts and high-falutin strategies. “We’ve got guys using soldering guns and occasionally I hear the whirr of a saw. We have ideas – lots of them – but to explain them to people and for them to really get it, we have to create an experience of the technology. For that, prototypes are needed. So we build them out as far as getting them actually up and running so that it’s not just slide ware.”

The growing popularity of radio frequency identification device (RFID) tags is a good example of the value of prototyping, he believes. RFID tags are trackable devices that are set to challenge barcoding as the standard for product identification.

Gillette recently placed an order for 500 million of these tags, which it plans to embed in its shaving kits as a tracking device to counter the growing problem of product theft. Another consumer goods giant, Procter & Gamble, is rumoured to have a billion on order.

While Accenture did not invent this technology, Ferguson maintains that it played a key role in promoting it. “I think we had some of the earliest and best demonstrations that gave people an idea of what you can do with it – everything from material and worker safety to shrinkage [shop-lifting].”

While Ferguson himself has been known to roll up his sleeves and tinker with technology, he is essentially a big picture person. He foresees a future where technology is so enmeshed in our lives we barely know it’s there. Along with senior scientist colleagues he recently put a name to this vision, ‘Reality Online’.

In summary, the concept is that in the very near future, a number of powerful, miniaturised and cheap technologies will converge to gather and intelligently deploy vast amounts of information, enabling physical reality to be captured online. Every material thing, in other words, will have a virtual equivalent.

If this sounds a bit far-fetched, consider the concept of smart dust, a technology currently being developed by the nanotechnologists at the University of California at Berkeley. Nanotechnology – the science of miniaturised computing – is enabling sensor technology to be developed that packs massive computing power into devices the size of dust particles – hence smart dust.

Smart dust will be a key enabler of the ‘Reality Online’ scenario sketched out by Ferguson and his colleagues.

The theory goes that once these tiny sensors are miniscule, powerful and cheap they will be everywhere and using wireless technology, will start to communicate with each other forming ad hoc networks that produce a tidal wave or sensory web of information about the world around us.

Ferguson is convinced that this data, so long as it is accompanied by intelligent filtering tools to prevent information overload, can provide endless opportunities for business and transform the way it operates.

“What ‘Reality Online’ says is that objects will be able to have some intelligence, some sensation, the ability to act and most importantly, the ability to communicate.

To summarise, objects will be able to sense and report their own state. If it’s a piece of fish it could be ‘I was cold but I’ve gotten rather warm on the trip over here’ or if it’s a cow it could be ‘I’m coming into heat’. That’s the first important half of ‘Reality Online’. The second half is that you can get hold of that state and represent a virtual double, so for everything that’s physical I can create something virtual that reflects all of its characteristics,” Ferguson says.

The practical applications of such technology are endless, from the engine in your car feeding back information to your garage about how it’s performing to a virtual double of your body continuously providing relevant biological data to your healthcare team.

This is not the stuff of science fiction. Much of the sensor data is in existence now, it’s simply not being aggregated and put to use.

However, new computer languages such as XML (extensible markup language) are providing the common languages for these so-called islands of sensor information to talk to each other, allowing businesses and business processes to communicate in a standardised way through web services.

The arrival of smart dust itself is not far away – Ferguson guestimates seven years – and when this happens the amount of sensor data out there will grow exponentially.

In the meantime, Accenture Technology Labs headed by Ferguson, will be developing a whole range of commercial applications which harness the streams of data and in so doing will take ‘Reality Online’ out of the lab into the real world.

By Brian Skelly

Pictured: Glover Ferguson: ‘Objects will be able to have some intelligence, some sensation, the ability to act and, most importantly, the ability to communicate’