From Mind-Blowing to Mundane: How Tech Is Reshaping Our Expectations

Pat Gelsinger, Chief Executive Officer, VMware

Pat Gelsinger, Chief Executive Officer, VMware

By Pat Gelsinger, CEO, VMware

Remember the Ellen Ripley character in Aliens, strapping on a robotic exoskeleton to battle the alien creature and protect her child? That was science fiction, a creative concept from 30 years ago. Yet here in 2017, it’s becoming science fact. Every day, South Korean shipbuilders arrive at work and strap on exoskeleton suits to gain superhuman strength. Similar technology is restoring mobility for those who have lost the ability to walk. This is amazing stuff—we’re essentially building the bionic man (for those of you who remember that TV show). Machines used to act like machines: not terribly nimble, unable to comprehend feelings, and essentially just generic tools. But all of that is changing fast.

We all love the Star Trek teleportation device, another iconic creation from science fiction. Who doesn’t know the phrase, “Beam me up, Scotty”? But here’s a science fact: earlier this year, Chinese researchers used quantum entanglement (what Einstein called, “spooky action at a distance”) to teleport a photon from the Earth’s surface to a satellite orbiting 300 miles above.

In this time of seismic change it’s interesting to ponder, what’s the most profound change of all? In my view, it’s our basic frame of reference—our everyday expectations. It’s hard to get perspective on how much our perspective has changed.

Case in point: almost everyone who takes their first ride in a self-driving car (myself included) reports having a very similar experience. During the first 60 seconds, we experience euphoria and deep fear. “Woah, nobody’s driving this thing!” In minutes two and three, we progress to fierce questioning. “How many sensors? What if someone swerves into our lane?” By the fourth minute, we’re bored and checking email or social media. “These autonomous vehicles drive like my grandma on Sunday!” It’s an experience that goes from mind-blowing to mundane in four minutes flat. That’s a good metaphor for what’s happening in our culture at large.

Tech Is Leaving the Nest
Tech innovation is reshaping our expectations and transforming every industry you can name, from banking to media, healthcare to retail, and beyond. Practically every element of every sector is deeply and profoundly changing through these digital transformations. Simply put, tech is leaving the nest. As geeks, we’re having our break-out moment.

Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the technology we use to care for premature babies. In the 1980s, babies born any earlier than 28 weeks of gestation were routinely offered only palliative care because their survival chances were so low. Today a baby born at 28 weeks has a 90 percent chance of survival, while babies born at 24 weeks have a 50/50 chance.

This summer I visited Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) and their neonatal intensive care unit, a state-of-the-art facility filled with tiny patients who fit easily into the palm of your hand. On a 24 x 7 basis, these preterm babies depend on sophisticated software technology to breathe, until their heart and lungs can do the job on their own. Not long ago, as the staff was preparing to perform heart surgery on a three-pound baby, CHOA’s IT team detected issues in an older data storage system, putting the surgery at risk. The IT team worked tirelessly around the clock, successfully resolving the situation just hours before the surgery was scheduled to begin. In the end, the surgery was a success and the baby is now healthy and growing. As CHOA CIO Allana Cummings remarked, “It’s important to remember who’s on the other end of the wire. IT is now an integral and essential part of how we deliver care.” Twenty years ago, not many predicted that IT software would be so critical to critical care.

Innovating in Cloud and Cybersecurity
In this era when tech innovation is transforming every industry, we in the tech industry have to recognize that we still have a lot of work to do. In particular, it’s imperative that we innovate to improve two core building blocks of digital transformation—namely, the cloud and cyber security.

The cloud model is now a decade old and since its inception, the cloud has been a force to dramatically simplify how businesses consume core IT capabilities, from compute to networking to storage. In the process, cloud has completely reset our expectations when it comes to the speed and flexibility of business technology. And yet, there’s an acute need here in 2017 to simplify the cloud experience. Every CIO I talk to is looking for a better and simpler way to manage the critical apps and data that they’re already running across multiple clouds. What they want is fewer, more strategic vendors—doing more and integrating with partners. A leading-edge hybrid cloud service should enable you to use a common set of cloud management tools and services spanning from your private cloud to any public cloud you prefer. This ability to have consistent operations across any cloud is new, and it strikes many in IT as novel and exciting right now. But it will quickly become the new normal and an expected part of an IT team’s daily routine.

We face a similar challenge in the realm of cybersecurity. Businesses are spending $100 billion annually on a wide array of different security software solutions, and yet they find themselves more vulnerable than ever to the threat of a security breach. As an industry, our goal is simple: we need to take all those disparate security point solutions and architect them into a secure infrastructure—one capable of tightly integrating all of the major security software components into a cohesive whole. Equally important, we need to make it dramatically simpler and easier to practice the five key pillars of good cyber hygiene. When you examine the major security breaches that made headlines over the past few years, every one of them could have been avoided completely or greatly reduced if the targeted business had followed these basic principles.

Navigating the Technological Pendulum
When you’ve been in this industry as long as I have, you start to detect patterns. Since the 1970s, we’ve experienced a continuous ebb and flow from centralization to decentralization of business technology. We started with the mainframe, the ultimate centralized model with access limited to a select few. Then along came the client server model with the promise (largely unfulfilled) of “distributed computing.” From there we swung back to a centralized mode of computing thanks to powerful minicomputers. In the 1990s, the Internet pushed us collectively back toward a highly decentralized model.

Over the past decade, cloud has changed the rules of the game once again, inspiring a move toward centralization as a new generation of developers built and housed their apps in services-rich environments like Amazon Web Services. I expect the cloud model will remain dominant for the next five to 10 years, but we can already see which direction the pendulum is swinging to next. With the massive proliferation of machine-connected devices, and as powerful use cases for the Internet of Things take root, we’re going to see massive demand for compute power that extends out to the edge. Simply put, Cloud to Edge is the next swing. Our physical world is meeting the digital realm.

One Final Thought
It may feel like the pace of technology disruption and change these days is so dizzying that it could not possibly get any more intense. Yet here’s the science fact: the pace of change right now is the absolute slowest it will be for the rest of your life. Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a fascinating ride.