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Martin Veitch (Global) - Interview: GE's Bill Ruh Expects Human-Machine Dialogue

Your impression of GE might well be the same as mine: huge company, among the biggest in the world; stands for General Electric; was run by Jack Welch; er, that’s it. But a software house? Not really.

Until quite recently, head of GE’s software and analytics centre William ‘Bill’ Ruh thought something similar, at least on the last count.

“When I got the call from the recruiter I said ‘But they don’t do software!’ What changed my mind was meeting the CTO and CEO. They realised that there was a shift from the analogue to digital and they had to bring in talent and augment the old world with the digital world.”

In fact, GE does ‘do’ software to the tune of billions of dollars and Ruh, formerly of companies including Cisco, IBM and Software AG, says the opportunity of building what he calls the ‘industrial internet’ was too good to turn down. Speaking by phone from the US, he describes this as the coming together of internet, machine-to-machine and software technologies to manage the massive systems that sit behind our biggest, dirtiest jobs in aviation, oil and gas and other sectors where GE plays.

Perhaps surprisingly though, he sees an underlying driving force for this hyper-scale convergence coming from the consumer world.

“A lot of our technological advances are being driven by advances from the consumer-based internet: retail, music, social networks and the move to smartphones,” he says. Just as GPS systems and sensors will underpin consumer-grade location-based systems, these technologies will also drive commercial M2M interactions.

Sensor computing will be supplemented by Big Data, which Ruh insists is not just a re-tread or buzz-phrase but a real change made reality by Hadoop and data sets held in huge back-end systems on the scale of Google and Amazon.

However, he has a warning that we mustn’t forget the human factor in understanding trends.

“Big Data is a reality but one potential thing that could slow the whole thing down is the fallacy that business intelligence is just a tool. You need data scientists. I sit on many academic bodies and what we’re hearing is that there’s no data science curriculum. This is probably the hottest job opportunity out there and there’s no course for it.”

That will change, however, and colleges like Stanford are already coming forward to fill the gap, he says.

The near-term benefits for GE customers from better analytics will be in enormous, often unglamorous tasks. By doing predictive maintenance in airlines, through having engines able to report back on their condition, unscheduled downtime will be reduced, for example.

Ruh says that the idea is not for GE to become an enterprise software or IT services company but to crack major challenges in analytics that will give clues as to early indicators of problems. “There’s tens of billions of dollars per year in costs we can attack,” he believes.

As GE and via a joint-venture with Accenture called Taleris that provides analytics as a service to the aviation sector, Ruh says the plan is to provide “a-ha moments” that spark productivity gains. Further out though it’s possible some of these will be more like Eureka moments. Ruh ponders turbines on a wind farm that talk to each other so one turbine operating particularly well can tell another, describing its settings in a way that’s reminiscent of how species in the animal kingdom share knowledge.

Other more futuristic ideas may seem like something from the Jetsons but are achievable.

“People and machines can work together more effectively,” Ruh says. “For example, machines might recognise who a person is when they walk up to it and act accordingly. A machine might say to a technician ‘Don’t touch that!’ if they’re about to interfere with a critical part.”

In the future, the relationship between people and devices will be a participative dialogue as if between peers. Far from being science fiction, this will be an evolution of the way we use digital technology in a smart way that’s well in advance of merely “programming robotics”, Ruh says.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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