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.

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