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The Connector: Meet Joe Salvo, the Man from Digital Future

When Joe Salvo bought his house in Schenectady, New York, in 1986, he purchased a piece of history. GE built it in 1905, not long after Thomas Edison opened the company’s research labs in the city and moved manufacturing plants here. The house was intended to be the model electric home of the future. It came fully wired, with light bulbs in every room, an electric sewing machine, a toaster, an electric stove and even an electric water heater. It was the 1905 version of the self-driving car.

But Salvo doesn’t spend much time there. As GE’s director of the Industrial Internet Consortium (ICC) – a not-for-profit group seeking to bridge the physical and digital industrial worlds – he’s too busy building the “new” future and telling the world about it. “I actually come from the future,” he jokes over the phone from Shanghai, where he was speaking last fall. “I’m paid by GE to work in the future and create the things that are going to be transformational.”

He’s only half kidding. In his office at GE Global Research in the Schenectady suburb of Niskayuna, Salvo has a 2015 take on Teddy Roosevelt’s electric toaster: a dedicated 100-gigabits-per-second line. Compared to regular broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second, he could download an HD movie in just seconds. He can expand that line to a bandwidth of many terabits per second in preparation of the data flood that will soon arrive.

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Above: Thousands of sensors placed on this 9HA GE gas turbine produce nearly 5 terabytes of data, about half the content of the print collection of the U.S. Library of Congress. Image credit: GE Power & Water

For all of its blessings, the plain vanilla Internet — the one that allows you to shop and watch Game of Thrones online — still has problems, foremost among them, security. The Industrial Internet, a secure network that connects machines, sends their data to the cloud for analysis and then dispatches relevant results to human operators, is a different beast. “This is the network where we are going to put the machines that our lives depend on,” Salvo says.

Companies are constantly looking for ways to make smarter decisions. But that’s getting harder without data. The Industrial Internet will carry all manner of performance data about heat, noise, and vibrations from sensors attached to all kinds of machines including jet engines, locomotives and oil rigs. It can also connect help optimize factories, power plants, hospitals and even patient outcomes.

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“We are moving into a systems age, where complex machines become self-aware and will start to make decisions among themselves,” says GE’s Joe Salvo. “If we’re lucky, they will teach us a thing or two.”

Salvo says that thanks to Moore’s law, which states that computing power will double every two years, and Metcalfe’s law, declaring that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users, we now have both the computing power and memory that is required to make really intelligent machines and link them together. “We are moving into a systems age, where complex machines become self-aware and will start to make decisions among themselves,” Salvo says. “If we’re lucky, they will teach us a thing or two.”

This is vintage Salvo. He helped establish the IIC in 2014. Along with GE, Salvo signed up four other companies as co-founders – Intel, Cisco, AT&T and IBM – and convinced each company to pay an annual fee of $250,000 to kick-start the funding the group needed. The IIC now includes more than 215 members from 24 countries. They include universities and research institutions as well as telecoms and industrial businesses.

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In 1905, GE built in Schenectady the electric house of the future. Joe Salvo, who bought the house in 1986, is now building GE’s new digital industrial future. Image credits: Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady

Salvo is sometimes the group’s evangelist, sometimes its diplomatic negotiator. Today, members of the IIC are assigned to working groups, testing technologies in special settings called test beds and publishing white papers in an effort to establish the rules of the Industrial Internet. One recent project is testing a concept called the digital thread. It’s using software to track machine parts from birth to the scrap yard, among many other things.

Salvo says the IIC’s job is to make sure the Industrial Internet will be built on an open architecture where everything is interoperable. There will be as many as 50 billion connected devices by 2020.

Model house

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One such piece of architecture is GE’s cloud-based software platform for the Industrial Internet called Predix. GE has been using the platform internally and in September opened it to outside developers.

Salvo says Thomas Edison would have understood this vision. “Edison based our company on the concept that you build a network and you add all kinds of interesting devices to it that will change the way we live — things like voice recordings, movies, washing machines, stoves and electric motors,” Salvo says. “GE has taken advantage of that network thinking for over 100 years, and the Industrial Internet is the logical extension of that.”

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