GE is advertising to build political support for Obama’s plan to purchase billions of dollars of GE tech in order to make the power grid “smart”. After all, who would want a “dumb” anything when they could have a “smart” something?
The reason we should keep things dumb is that in engineering the word “dumb” has a different connotation. In engineering, “dumb” means simple and reliable.
Increasing complexity in any networked system increases possible points of failure. Worse, the more interconnected the system, i.e., the more any single component affects any other randomly selected component in the system, the faster point-failures spread to the entire system. Power grids are massively interconnected. Every blackout starts with a seemingly trivial problem that, like a pebble failing on a mountain side, triggers an avalanche of failure.
Here, let me take a page from GM’s book and explain it in song. (To the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain“)
You can while away the hours
While waiting for your power
But it’s really, really lame.
Programmers are busy patchin’
Since the switches are a crashin’
Cause your Grid has a Brain
In the dark you can fiddle
cause your power’s just a piddle
Cause your Grid has a Brain
When your Grid it starts to thinking
More it will be breaking
Cause your Grid has a brain
Oh I, will tell you why
Smart systems are such a chore
Cause complex things break more
They break in ways you never thought before
Management will be a toughin’
If with smarts we get to stuffin’
It will bring the system pain
We won’t dance and be merry
Our problems will be more hairy
Cause our grid has a brain!
For many people, it seems intuitively obvious that a top-down approach to network design makes it more reliable, but real-world experience proves the opposite. Networked system exhibit unpredictable emergent behavior. Very tiny inputs can produce unexpectedly large outputs. Minor inputs that look trivial in the design phase turn out to bring down the entire system in practice. This makes the top-down design of reliable, complex networks nearly impossible.
Instead, large networks should evolve from the bottom up. You start by improving small, localized networks and getting them to work on their own. Only then do you begin linking them together to create progressively larger networks. In this way, each new stage rests on a proven foundation. Emergent problems are smaller and easier to localize. In extremity, you can just revert the system to functioning local networks.
The Internet evolved in such a fashion. The Internet began with small, localized intra-nets which were gradually linked together from the bottom up to produce one, giant, planet spanning network. Had we tried to engineer the Internet from the top down we would have never succeeded.
When we start having the federal government paying for and directing the upgrading of the power grid, we inevitably have a top-down design process. Instead of grand visions we should start modestly from the bottom up, by making end-user power management “smart” — by installing computerized meters and other technology that lets end users control their power consumption. When that works well, we can start adding more intelligence to local switching and then move up the system from there in stages. We should keep the major core systems as “dumb” as possible for as long as possible.
[Addendum: I would also add that at no point in the history of any technology has improving the efficiency of a technology led to people using less of it. If we improve the efficiency of the power grid, people will consume more electricity. I’m all for increasing the efficiency of the grid just because that is how we progress. However, pushing improvements in hope of conserving energy is counterproductive.]
[Update (2009-4-8-08:46): When I wrote this post, I was thinking about failures that arise from the unexpected interactions between the components of the grid itself. However, as any one who gets viruses knows, computerizing a system makes it more prone to attack. Instapundit links to an article describing how foreign black-hat hackers have penetrated our existing computer controls on the power grid. As we increase the level of computerization in the grid we will increase our vulnerability to such remote attacks. Again, the best defense is a more module system wherein different modules use different technology. Your network is safer if you have Windows, Macs and Linux boxes in it than it is if its pure Windows. ]