Friday, May 27, 2011

Earth – Already a “Smarter Planet”?

I recently Tweeted about a short blurb I read in the current issue (June 2011) of Wired Magazine having to do with the construction of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mohave Desert.  In the blurb, written by Boonsri Dickinson, a short list of pros and cons caught my eye.  In the last con, she writes that by itself, every square meter of the Mohave desert absorbs 106 grams of carbon annually.  This got me thinking about the campaign that IBM has propelled into the current vernacular over the last year and half – Smarter Planet.

There are three key ideas behind IBM’s Smarter Planet. First, that the world is increasingly becoming instrumented, meaning sensors are showing up in all types of products and locations.  Second, that these sensors are increasingly becoming interconnected, usually via the Internet. And third, that these interconnected instruments are being linked to massive data gathering and analysis systems thus making them intelligent… that is they can cause action based on the data they collect.  They way I interpret the item that Boonsri included in her cons list is that perhaps the greatest model of all for a Smarter Planet is the planet itself.

earth_system1  Assuming one generally buys into some of the current theorizing about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, it’s not hard to see the comparison with Smarter Planet.  Ecosystems have their sensors… trees, water, grass, desert sand, etc…. and ecosystems are connected by proximity to one another.  The key therefore becomes the “intelligence” being applied to what these sensors are taking in.  Going back to the Wired article, the fact that the desert absorbs carbon at a rate of about 1,700 tons a year could be perceived as the action that comes from the intelligence that other sensors are feeding to just this ecosystem.

It is estimated that the Ivanpah Solar Electric plant will remove 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its 30 year life.  While that’s way more than what the 5½ square miles of desert the site will consume can remove over the same period of time, it does make one wonder what impact the removal of a piece of one of the earth’s “intelligent sensors” will have on the whole system.

I’m a big believer that a lot of what we humans claim as inspiration comes from observing the patterns in nature.  It’s not a surprise to me that one of the most promising technical campaigns at one of the largest companies in the world has perhaps subconsciously mirrored one of the most advanced natural patterns on earth.

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