The Tiny Engines Driving The Digital Revolution

Christopher Koch and Dan Wellers

In computing, bigger is never better. The smaller computers get, the more useful they become—like that computer you carry around in your pocket or purse, otherwise known as a smartphone.

The same holds true for digital sensors. Today we think of them as discrete devices that we attach to our fitness wristbands or factory machinery.

But sensors are on the verge of becoming so small that they will be ubiquitous. They will be completely integrated into the world around us (and inside us).

These tiny sensors will create a world where everything can be measured and manipulated. And that will make sensors a powerful force in the future of business and society.

Sensors have already shifted the healthcare model for treatment of some diseases from reactive—waiting until someone gets sick before treatment begins—to a proactive plan of real-time monitoring to sense and respond to symptoms before they become acute and potentially life-threatening.

Businesses will need to adopt the same strategy to survive in a sensor-filled world. It will become unacceptable for your product or service to break down. Customers will gravitate to providers that monitor and detect problems with everything from smartphones to turbines before they become catastrophic and expensive. Businesses of all kinds need to think about how the future of sensors will play out.

And that future is playing out right now.

Look Ma, no batteries

One of the biggest potential uses for sensors is to monitor things in inhospitable or remote places where it’s expensive, dangerous, or soul-crushing for humans to go, such as checking on the structural integrity of oil pipelines in the middle of nowhere. But sensors have always needed a dedicated power source to keep them running, which has limited their use.

That will change soon. As sensors become smaller, they need less energy to run, which begets new possibilities for untethering them from batteries.

University of Washington researchers have created a tiny sensor that grabs energy from radio waves that flow invisibly around us from sources like TV and radio broadcasts, cellphones, and wi-fi, and converts it to a viable power source. It’s a way to make sensors self-sustaining, which means they can be used just about anywhere.

Radio waves are just one source of ambient energy that will enable sensors to generate their own power. Companies have developed prototypes of sensors that can harvest energy from virtually all types of electromagnetic radiation or vibration (even oscillations as minor as from putting your fingers on your desk)—technology that will enable sensors one day soon to go where none have gone before.

No more fly on the wall

Until recently, sensors couldn’t be anything but a fly on the wall, limited by their relatively large size and power consumption to being highly sophisticated monitors of the world around them—able to measure everything from motion, acceleration, and pressure to light, heat, chemicals, and radioactivity.

However, despite their increasingly diminutive size, sensors have become more assertive, not less. Beyond merely sensing their surroundings, they are actively affecting them.

For example, researchers recently created an experimental sensor small enough to be swallowed but so powerful that it not only monitors fat levels in obese patients but also automatically releases medication that gives them a sense of fullness and dissuades them from eating. Another group of researchers is working on a sensor-equipped pill the size of a baby aspirin that will monitor medication intake and send a text message to doctors if patients skip a dose or don’t take enough.

But that’s just the beginning of sensors’ emboldened miniaturization. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have created sensors small enough (roughly the size of a grain of sand) to be attached to individual muscle and nerve fibers of rats. These sensors could monitor our health long term or perhaps even let us work out while we sleep. Researchers have also created biodegradable sensors that can be implanted within the body to monitor traumatic injuries and simply melt away when the injuries have healed.

The Berkeley researchers are confident they will one day be able to shrink sensors to 50 microns—half the width of a human hair. This smart dust could be integrated into the cells of the body, such as inside brain cells, allowing paraplegics to control a robotic arm the same way as their original limb. Smart dust could create a new category of treatment, known as electroceuticals, to fight chronic diseases such as epilepsy, stimulate the immune system to fight infections, or reduce inflammation.

Smart dust also has tremendous potential for business. Engineers at General Electric and 3D-printing company Optomec have already started down this path by creating a compound that can be painted on almost any surface. It hardens into a sensor that can function in the dirtiest, hottest places. GE is using the compound to print sensors directly on the blades of an industrial gas turbine.

A new sense of reality

Sensors this versatile could help us experience a reality well beyond that defined by evolution. Sensors could, for example, enable us to hear the low-pitched sounds that elephants hear, or the high-pitched sounds heard by dolphins. Already, amateur hackers have created a handheld device that mimics bats’ echolocation abilities by using ultrasound to detect the distance of objects.

Sensors could also give us entirely new abilities that are not in nature, such as extra sensory perception. We could also improvise different combinations of senses as required, such as swapping in ultraviolet, infrared, and night vision to meet our individual needs at any given time.

Data to the max

The catch in creating this new world of perception will come in managing the data needed to make it come alive. Researchers recently ran an experiment in which they needed 82,944 processors and 40 minutes on a supercomputer to simulate just one second of human brain processing capability. The simulation used about one petabyte of system memory to model 1.73 billion nerve cells, which is just a tiny fraction of the 80-100 billion nerve cells believed to be in the brain.

In other words, a fully sensor-enabled world is not going to run on today’s internet. Computing power will move to the edge, where the sensors are—as we’re already seeing in today’s experimental autonomous vehicles, which cart around their own little data centers and cloud computing environments (known as cloudlets or fog computing) to process all the information (roughly 1 GB per second, according to one estimate) coming from all the vehicles’ sensors and cameras. These cloudlets perform analytics at the sensor site while sending only the most basic descriptive information, or metadata, back over the internet so as not to overwhelm limited cell network bandwidth.

Suffice it to say that when our bodies, our cars, even the paint on our walls are all generating data, we will need extraordinary amounts of computing power to process it all. We will also need much better methods of securing data if we are to avoid potentially lethal manipulation and misuse of that data.

Redefining market success

In a world that senses everyone and everything all the time, businesses will have real-time insight into customers’ every whim, offering unprecedented opportunities for service and innovation. But competitors will have the same degree of insight. And they will be able to sense and respond to your moves in the market much more quickly.

When technology allows us to move this fast, we will need new ways of thinking about how to succeed in the market. The opportunities for differentiation will become increasingly fine-grained. The way we think of competitive advantage will change. It will be a new era of real-time business.

Read the executive brief How Sensors Will Redefine Business and Our World.



About Christopher Koch

Christopher Koch is the Editorial Director of the SAP Center for Business Insight. He is an experienced publishing professional, researcher, editor, and writer in business, technology, and B2B marketing.

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is the Global Lead of Digital Futures at SAP.