Monday, December 27, 2010

Smart Grids - Data, Policy, and Privacy. Oh my!

A couple weeks ago, I attended a seminar on smart grids at the University of Minnesota Digital Technology Center. The presentation was by William L. Glahn, Director, Office of Energy Security for the State of Minnesota.

The presentation was informative, and I was very happy to learn that our legislators are aware that there are very important security, privacy, and policy issues that will need to be addressed. Mr. Glahn, laid out the issues across three categories of "policy challenges."
  • Security 
    • The system must be secure from outside attack and manipulation
    • Personal information must be protected
  • Consumers
    • Costs must be low and there must be perceived value for any costs incurred
    • Nobody wants "big brother"
    • People want to know who owns the data, and how the data will be used
  • Utilities
    • Costs and investments must be recovered
    • Utilities do not want another mandate
    • Who "owns" the customer is important...utilities do not want to give up control of their regulated monopoly or find that policy mandates effectively subsidize their competition
    • There is a likelihood that a new business model must be developed
Besides the fact that all those issues can be boiled down to "fear of change", the thing that strikes me the most is how the utilities are clearly trying to figure out how to cling to an out-dated business model...or at the very least control the speed of evolution. Their behavior seems awfully similar to that of the RIAA, but they have the added benefit of being a utility, rather than entertainment. The country runs on their power, and they know it. In the vast majority of the US, they have a captive audience. The power companies want no more costs or mandates from the regulators. But they're all for the regulations that keep them as the sole source of power for their consumers, and they're going to leverage that position to own as much of the smart grid as they can.

Most of the experiments with the "smart grid" that I'm aware of have been driven by the power companies themselves. And thus far consumers have had a relatively lukewarm reception to it. The reason for the lukewarm reception is simple: If all the technology and the devices are being pushed by the power company, nobody will buy the argument that the smart grid is there for the consumer.

But what if people bought smart grid appliances the same way they do any other electronic appliance, from PC's to DVD players to (for the most part) cell phones? What if power optimization features were simply built-in to every electronics device you bought, and didn't rely on any infrastructure investments from the power company? HVAC systems, lighting, and other power-hungry systems could particularly benefit from managing their own power consumption and being "internet enabled". But there's more to it than that. If standards were built and consumers had choice and control over the smart grid products they use, rather than being told what to use by the power company, it could help solve a number of issues.

First, the consumer bears the cost of the smart grid. They'll buy devices when they feel it is in their best interests to do so. Like any technology, you'll have early adopters, a chasm, a mainstream adoption, another chasm, and the late adopters. It will take time, but it would nearly eliminate the capital investment by the public or power companies.

Second, the consumers would be free to select brands they trust. Privacy concerns with the Google thermostat? Security issues with Microsoft controls on your air conditioner? Get the one from GE or HP instead.

Finally, it could result in a more "peer-to-peer-style" model in the smart grid, making the system as a whole more loosely coupled. This has the benefit of being more resilient to abuse and failure...whether that's from Big Brother, terrorists, or plain 'ol software bugs.

I think the power industry will drag their feet on adoption of the smart grid for as long as possible. They'll pay it lip service because green is trendy. But expecting the power companies to go green is at least a little like seeing the tobacco companies lobbying to remove their own ability to market in places where they might influence kids. The primary motivation is simply because they feel that the social pressure of being green is something they can't ignore.

Naturally, the power companies will approach this process in the way that benefits them most. For example, in many places you can have them install a device to turn down/off your air conditioner during peak loads. It's good for power consumption, of course...but only when it benefits the power company. If the power company can reduce the height of the peak load, they can operate a cheaper infrastructure at a higher level of efficiency. Green doesn't really have all that much to do with it...unless by "green" you mean "money".

In the end, smart device manufacturers will produce devices the consumers want. There isn't all that much the power companies can do to stop it. But expect the power companies to try like heck to find a way to build the Smart Grid around themselves...using their technology...on their terms. They know they don't move very quickly, and they know the average consumer perceives that everything power-related has to come from the utility company. So if they push the smart grid too fast, consumers will find someone else who can supply them with the smart widget to control their air conditioner.

If that happens, the power company will be out of the loop. They'll lose the revenue for selling the device. They'll lose revenue from any sort of subscription-based services. They'll lose the massively important data they can collect off devices like this. And most importantly, they'll lose "ownership" of the customer. At best, they'll have to actually compete for any value-add services they want to sell. Assuming they're not well-equipped to do that (they aren't today, at least) they'll be reduced to "only" supplying power, which is subject to the economics of a regulated commodity and therefore lower potential profits. But if they pull off owning the smart grid, they'll have the safety of a regulated monopoly and the profits of all those value-added smart grid services.

I'm not entirely sure what Mr. Glahn's perspective on the issue is. I was hoping the presentation would be a little more forward-looking than it was, but it was mostly a recap of the industry's past and didn't have much in the way of policy recommendations for the future. Some of the things he said during the presentation lead me to believe that the power companies are simply stuck trying to preserve their business model. But when asked about the potential of consumer choice, he briefly stated  that Best Buy would obviously love to start selling consumer smart grid electronics, and then took the next question.

Either way, I'm sure there's a lot of "strategery" going on...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Executable Speech: When Words and Action Are the Same Thing

Yesterday, Read Write Web asked the question a lot of other people are asking: What if Operation Anonymous Attacked City Infrastructures & Power Grids? The SCADA systems used by power grids have been known to be horribly insecure for over a decade, and yet many people agree that precious little has been done about it. Thankfully, Operation Anonymous only launched some irritating DDoS attacks at credit card networks and other targets.

Read Write Web is correct when they point out that the only people who really got hurt were innocent bystanders. But they hit the nail on the head when they start discussing the new forms of "civil disobedience" that are coming to life on the Net.

Is a DDoS attack really like a hippie-style sit-in at the front door of a bank? If it isn't, what is? Is a DDoS attack really "violent"? Nothing at all was broken or destroyed, and laptops are allowed through airport security, so it is hard to call them weapons.

If a large group of people wanted to get their point across in a non-violent way, how would they do it on the Internet? Creating a home page for your cause on Facebook and having a million people "like" it might be the rough equivalent of a petition, but probably doesn't qualify as civil disobedience.

One of the things that is so fascinating about computer technology is that computers really don't understand the difference between words and action. Most programmers like myself try to organize our software into "code" and "data", but the reality is that those distinctions are purely for our own convenience. The computer simply doesn't know the difference, or care.

Software code itself is simultaneously speech and action. The computer just stores bits and bytes. Some of those bytes are content, and the rest of those bytes are code that describes what to do with the content. If you add a few more bytes, you can even turn the content into code, too, by simply adding more instructions that tell the computer how to interpret it.

Software development technologies have continued to narrow the gap between the thoughts in your head and the actions of a computerized system. It is faster and easier than ever to write a computer program that does something useful. The better programming languages get and the faster computers become, the closer we get to the Star Trek scenario, where Geordi La Forge speaks aloud, "Computer...make me a ham sandwich," and one actually appears...automatically toasting it just the way he wants and adding a little Dijon mustard based on his preferences.

But if the words in a book are considered speech, and those words can become digitized and stored inside a computer, at what point does speech stop being speech? And how can speech be free if computers automatically start performing actions when words are uttered? Our legal system already recognizes the confusion by offering both copyright and patent rights to computer software. Unfortunately just about everybody agrees that our intellectual property laws are completely inadequate.

I'm awfully torn on this issue, myself. The power and convenience of computers is likely to keep this trend continuing, and I don't see how this can't someday end up being discussed in the Supreme Court. There are a few issues we'll need to figure out. In the very least, as the guy writing these words, I will need some way to identify that they're supposed to be just words. And there will have to be a legal test established for consistency and standardization purposes. That won't solve all the problems, but at least we'll have an agreed upon definition of "speech" to base the debate upon.

And if you really want to see where this is going, start contemplating how we'll deal with forms of "speech" that don't even involve writing or speaking.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The DoD's PlayStation Condor: When Sony Was So Almost-Cool

The Department of Defense just unveiled their latest (not secret) super computer, which is based on 1760 PlayStation 3 gaming consoles.

(Official Announcement)

A friend sent me a link where John Herman interviews Mark Barnell about his involvement and the project's background.

Cool as heck. But kind of sad and anti-climatic in a way.

They mention it is built on the "original" PS3, not the more recent "slim". This is because they removed several key hardware components required to install an alternative operating system. And the latest software update for ALL PS3's removes the ability completely, even on the older one. The newest games and features require the latest PS3 software, so they're forcing everyone to decide whether they want a hackable PS3 or GT5 and streaming Netflix. And apparently you can't change your mind and downgrade later.

Sony started with such a promising idea when they released the PS3, promoting openness and "hackability" for projects just like this. Universities were buying up lots of PS3s, and there were several Linux distributions built specifically for the PS3, such as YellowDog Linux. But it appears they've back-tracked toward their proprietary ways.

I suppose game consoles are a much bigger industry than super-computing these days, but it is too bad they have to be mutually-exclusive. I've never seen an explanation from Sony as to why they decided to do this. But I can guess.

If you're familiar with Sony's past history of proprietary technology formats (MiniDisc, MemoryStick, Beta, and others), it seems at least somewhat plausible that the only reason they offered this ability on the PS3 was to do everything they could to boost Blu-Ray sales. Look at other things they were doing at the time as well. The PS3 was not only the most powerful gaming console available, but for quite some time it was also the cheapest Blu-Ray player you could by. So if you wanted a gaming console, you got a free Blu-Ray player. And if you wanted a Blu-Ray player, you got a free gaming console! I'm a long-time Grand Tourismo junkie, but I have to admit, that's the biggest reason why there's a PS3 in my living room.

They won that war (even a blind squirrel...right?), and so now they have no obligation to sell anything but the cheapest gaming platform possible. Remove the special hardware, and stop paying the cost of maintaining and testing the firmware/software code. I'm sure they were able to simultaneously increase their margin while reducing the price of the game console. But's a shame.