Evolving the Digital Nervous System

iStock_000016682100XSmallMetaphors in enterprise architecture are a dime a dozen and I find that many of them just don’t work for me.  However, I have always liked the concept of the digital nervous system. Despite the term getting extensive use in Bill Gates’ 1999 book Business @ The Speed of Thought, it is unfortunate that the concept remains largely that – a concept – more than a decade later. The idea is that a digital nervous system is similar to a biological nervous system in that they both have multi-sensory inputs, intelligent filtering, the ability to correlate information in real time and can respond to those inputs. These parallels actually fit most closely with scientific and military use cases rather than big enterprise because they are more often about real-time telemetry used for sense and respond, or command and control.

For the past decade the United States (and other countries) have been building out an incredible variety and volume of electronic telemetry and sensors connected to global networks for:

  • Weather and climate analysis
  • Chemical/Biological/Radiation/Nuclear (CBRN) detection
  • Facial detection using video and still cameras
  • Suspicious activity recognition
  • Cyber security that surpasses the sophistication of the most advanced algorithmic trading operations

Using the metaphor, if the sensor networks are like the nerves of the human body, and the algorithms are the instincts and learned activities of the brain, then what we need are the systems that represent the body’s muscles. Not one, but many coordinated muscles, capable of a meaningful response. We have systems today that are the equivalent of being able to feel heat when your hand is on a hot stove, and recognize that it’s a dangerous situation, but the reaction is akin to calling a response team to remove your hand from the flame.

We will have achieved the final piece of the digital nervous system when the next Times Square terror attempt is thwarted because a camera notices a truck parked in a restricted area, correlates that with a face, a license plate, and a radiation signature, then automatically creates a NIEM Suspicious Activity Report, dispatches law enforcement and HAZMAT, pauses public transit, sets all the traffic lights to avoid the area, and pre-checks local hospital availability just in case.

Advances in technology and integration, as we have seen with recent work by the DHS DNDO move us closer and closer to a realized digital nervous system. These efforts are not an end point, but they do move us along the technological evolutionary chain to make us smarter and safer as cities and countries in the global society.