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Let’s Get Connected: GE Digital Chief Bill Ruh Talks About Intelligent Machines and Our Optimized Future

Philip Trippenbach
September 25, 2015
Bill Ruh believes in intelligent machines as an emerging reality, not a distant sci-fi concept. “I’m looking forward to a future where the power never goes out, where the water is always clean, where airplanes always run on time, and where the health care industry is working to its full capacity,” he says. “Connected, intelligent machines can get us there.”
It’s a bold statement, but then again, Ruh has an inside view. As the head of GE Digital – a brand new business unit helping GE and its customers get connected to the Industrial Internet - his mission is to make machines better by making them smarter.

Starting Tuesday, Ruh will have a lot of company. He will be in San Francisco at GE’s Minds + Machines conference, a 3-day summit that brings together leading thinkers and practitioners in the field, including MIT’s Andrew McAfee, NASA’s Adam Steltzner, the engineer who helped land the rover Curiosity on Mars, and Ed Catmull, a computer scientist and president of Pixar Animation Studios.

Bill Ruh GE “I’m looking forward to a future where the power never goes out," says Bill Ruh, head of GE Digital.

Like them, Ruh likes to think big about bits. To him, the Industrial Internet - a network that links machines with software analytics and data in the cloud – is a bigger deal than the Internet of Things, which already connects fitness monitors, smoke detectors, light switches and other consumer devices to apps and smartphones. “There’s a difference between running a smart thermostat in your house and controlling a power plant,” Ruh says. “We work in mission-critical environments.”

So just how much could connected machines and the Industrial Internet change the world? GE believes that they could add $10 to $15 trillion to the global economy over the next 20 years. To start, take a look at your own buying habits, and how data connections have changed the consumer world.

ge_windturbine_li (1) Machines are already generating many terabytes of data every day, multiple times the information stored in the printed collection of the Library of Congress.

In the 1990s, when the Internet was just becoming well known, many companies built “brochureware,” simple webpages with their phone numbers and hours. But the founders of Amazon, PayPal and other future web giants realized that the consumer world was going through a seismic change. “They said, what is the business opportunity when a billion people get connected?” Ruh says. “The next thing you know, they turned the retail world upside-down.”

GE is now doing something similar in the digital industrial space. It’s looking at business opportunities in a world with billions of connected machines generating many terabytes of performance data every day, the equivalent to several printed collections of the Library of Congress. “When you’re willing to see beyond the financial impact in the next quarter and look further […] you can begin to see new products and new markets that you might never otherwise have thought about,” Ruh says.

Take efficiency. An “intelligent” jet engine, for example, can carry hundreds of sensors monitoring everything from pressures and temperatures to vibrations. The sensors remotely feed the data to the cloud where software can analyze the same information from an entire fleet of such engines, no matter where in the world they are, optimize them and spot problems before they cause an unplanned outage. “Any asset can be optimized, if the machines can share the right information,” Ruh says.

At such scale, even tiny tweaks can lead to huge savings. “We’re one of the world’s biggest generators of electricity,” Ruh says about GE’s power generation technology. “A one percent savings in fuel across our fleet of turbines is worth a little under $7 billion a year for our customers.”

Intelligent machines can also predict when they’re going to break down. Facebook users share with friends their status. Today, machines running on GE’s Predix software platform for the Industrial Internet are updating their human handlers.

While still in the air, a jet engine, for example, could spot a part that’s getting unusually hot and ping an engineer at the next airport that it needs maintenance. In fact, it could even order the right replacement part it needs, and have that part delivered and waiting in the hangar when the engineer gets there, making his job quicker and easier. “We think about this as connecting minds and machines,” he says. “If you don’t figure out the person in this, you won’t achieve the results.”

Looking at the industrial landscape, Ruh worries about speed. “What keeps me up at night is that we’re not going fast enough,” he says. “The opportunities here are so enormous, the benefits to business and industry are so enormous. The faster we can move the better we can make it for everyone.”

This week’s sold out Minds + Machines conference should put him more at ease.