GE Bets on the Software Biz


Don O’Brien | Flickr

How GE is becoming a software company. Software, as Marc Andreessen famously puts it, may be “eating the world,” but GE is looking to chow down on some code (The New York Times). Having pivoted away from its concentration on finance back to its manufacturing roots since the financial crisis of 2007–8, the industrial giant has opened a software division in San Ramon, Calif., aimed at developing a digital operating system for factories. One key application is a predictive maintenance system named Predix that processes sensor data to manage systems’ repair schedules and make them more efficient. GE figures it better build an open platform for this stuff before some newcomer does — and that means the company not only has to attract employees but also must win developer mindshare. It’s an unfamiliar road for the old-line manufacturer — but GE sees no other option. It’s mind-blowing to think that GE is trying to apply agile software thinking and lean-startup methods in its business of mammoth gas turbines and airplane engines. As the Times notes, in these markets, it’s hard to see how a “minimum viable product” could ever fly. Still, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt says of the firm’s software investment, “It’s this or bust.”

Big Data is our new big daddy. As we hand over ever-larger shares of our personal and political decisionmaking to algorithms, we are turning data into a new kind of godlike authority, writes historian Yuval Noah Harari (The Financial Times). Where humanism taught us to trust the guidance of our inner compasses, “Dataism” counsels that we follow the pointers that emerge from our information systems. As we dissect the inner workings of the human machine and discover the mechanisms that drive our organisms, we will come to see our selves as data-driven, too. Such a world has no room for free will, but it can’t answer what Harari calls “the hard problems of consciousness,” either. Data can tell us how we’re doing, but it still can’t tell us what we should do with the time of our lives. You can view your gut as a calculating device or as an ineffable ecosystem; either way, it’s what you are going to go with.

Cloud computing’s ghost towns. The New York Times’ Quentin Hardy visits the site of a massive Microsoft data center in Boydton, Virginia and finds that the one thing it’s missing is people. As our digital infrastructure moves to cloud-based services, tech giants are building out their data-center back offices in remote locations where land and energy are cheap. These efficiency-squeezing projects create some temporary construction work, but don’t supply many long-term jobs. And over time, the few positions that are still required are likely to be gradually filled by robots. Residents of places like Boydton might well find new opportunities if they moved to cities — but they’ll probably need help to be able to afford it.

Peace is breaking out all over the West. Good news from the front: With the agreement to end the long-running war between Colombia’s government and its FARC rebels, the entire Western Hemisphere is at peace. “Today,” writes scientist Steven Pinker and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, “There are no military governments in the Americas. No countries are fighting one another. And no governments are battling major insurgencies.” Sure, there’s fighting elsewhere — mostly, in a wide zone straddling Africa and Asia through the Middle East, an area that contains about one-sixth of the world’s population. But that leaves five-sixths of the world war-free. If the absolute prerequisite for any kind of economic progress is that people stop trying to kill each other, we’re doing better than we might think.

Burning Man is where ideologies melt into the sand. The annual Burning Man festivities commence once more in Nevada’s desert this week, as the pilgrimage of burners conjures a temporary city out of barren playa. Whether you view Burning Man as Dionysian paradise or Boschian inferno, the festival casts a remarkably wide net across our culture’s political and economic spectrum. It pulls techies and hippies, business people and artists, utopian communitarians and radical conservatives into one big party tent. Burning Man runs by a strictly money-free gift economy, yet it finds fans among libertarians, too: One returning devotee this year is anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist (Grist). Maybe it’s all just one big American family picnic, as its founder told The Atlantic a couple of years ago. Or maybe, as Quartz has it, it’s the vacation we all desperately need but keep failing to take.

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