Robert Metcalfe on the Enernet

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


Last night, I had the pleasure of listening to a lecture by my college’s first ever Professor of Innovation, Dr. Robert Metcalfe. To list Dr. Metcalfe’s credentials would probably take more space than WordPress has, but his main claim to fame is the invention of Ethernet, which is what drives Local Area Networks at some specific location. Until recently, he was a venture capitalist; as he puts it, he was getting tired of it and looking around for a new job when he decided to sell the idea of Metcalfe the Professor.

To a very large extent, he seems like the man for the job: he’s articulate, entertaining, and informative. And there’s no doubt that he has some interesting ideas. After a while I couldn’t help myself; I ended up scribbling notes haphazardly into my book.

The thrust of his presentation was that the energy problem could be solved by applying the same principles that support the existence of the internet (so Internet + Energy = Enernet). At least, that’s what I gathered. He doesn’t seem to be the most adept PowerPoint user — actually, he admits that this is the first ever PPT he’s done, despite founding the company that developed PowerPoint — because a) the colors clash horribly, b) there’s no table of contents, and c) his points are therefore all over the place. This post, therefore, is an attempt at summarizing his talk using my own (perhaps inaccurate) words.

The Blue Movement

Metcalfe opened with an introduction to the Internet era, dispensing dry wit and charm as he spoke about the early days of the Internet: a scattering of computers — “none of them in Texas!” — across the US, huge lumbering machines that spent more time communicating within buildings than between the various hub points, at least at MIT. Metcalfe described the “hardening of categories” that sprung up in the first era, a separation of video, voice and data that proved worthless later on; the Internet now, which is equal parts communication and computers; and the fatal mistake made by corn ethanol supporters, who assumed that the feed/fuel/food equation could be tampered with when they drew upon corn production to develop alternate energy sources.

Then he suggested, perhaps not entirely deadpan, that we’d have to call the Green Movement the Blue Movement: the earth is mostly water, and the Green people seem to be anti… well, everything, including solar and nuclear sources of alternate energy.

Enernet Principles

I liked the use of the nifty comparison table, which listed the corollaries between the factors affecting the Internet and those affecting the energy industry. Metcalfe likened energy and power to today’s bandwidth and information, Carnot’s thermodynamics principles to the Shannon Information Theory, and ergs and joules to bits and bytes.

But these were just the superficial comparisons between the two systems; Metcalfe introduced some other features of the Internet that he said the Enernet could borrow. One was the layering system of the Internet — the seven layers of communication systems, which starts from the physical coppers and proceeds through the Ethernet and HTML to the user applications — which might come in useful for the Smart Grid concept.

And like the Internet, where both downloads and uploads happen, Metcalfe sees the Smart Grid as being a distributed system of users who both buy and sell electricity amongst each other.

Perhaps most interestingly, he predicts that something analogous to Moore’s Law will happen. Moore predicted that integrated circuits would double in density and computing power once every two years or so. That meant that you’d have smaller computers for cheaper money. Now, Moore’s Law is beginning to strain at its limits because at the very small level, quantum side effects become hard to ignore. While we grapple with that problem, however, Metcalfe says his colleague has a prediction of his own: Sachs’ Law, which predicts that eventually the cost of solar cells will fall below the cost of wholesale coal-powered electricity. That’s a big assumption to be making, but it’s true that a bunch of interesting research has come out recently that is driving solar power forward.

It occurs to me that, simply because the Internet was forced to grow so quickly, it was limber enough to develop some standards for itself, whereas the energy industry is entrenched in the status quo (another thing Metcalfe seemed to be dead set against) and is unable to reinvent itself. Perhaps that’s where his talk was headed.

Enernet Research

Metcalfe is not a man who’s short of opinions. Amongst some of his strongest criticisms was the fact that the Department of Energy in Washington was a huge waste of time. His main gripe seemed to be that the research was dictated by politics — he was probably still sore about the corn ethanol fiasco — and the lumbering machinery of government bureaucracy. On the other hand, he suggested that the only companies who have the funds to do corporate research are those which later develop into monopolies, like Bell Labs and Microsoft.

Which, of course, leaves universities and other academic institutions.

These aren’t wholly without taint, of course — I’m sure academia has its fair share of not-quite-ethical corporate tie-ups. But on the other hand, places like UT have enough independent money (I hope) to conduct good research. Metcalfe further says that the competition amongst universities for governmental grants will improve the quality of the results.

Further Reading

Quite a few more of the slides were left out because we only had an hour, but most of the questions were relevant and interesting. It was here, though, that Metcalfe’s technical chops were tested and perhaps found wanting. I don’t mean to say that the inventor of the Ethernet didn’t know what he was talking about, but that he seemed unable to provide technical answers to questions. I don’t know why he didn’t present more technical content to a room overflowing — literally — with computer scientists and engineers. When asked about the potential of the Internet to both liberate and oppress, he seemed rather taken aback. “Is that really happening?” he asked the questioner, who seemed as surprised as he was.

But he had high hopes for nuclear and solar power. Small, distributed nuclear units, Metcalfe asserted, were on their way in, as were more efficient solar cells, perhaps those using photosynthesis methods. He also seems to believe that there will be the proverbial silver bullet when it comes to the Enernet, but he’s been forced to eat his words before, so I don’t think many will hold him to that.

I was a little let down that Dr Metcalfe hadn’t actually intended to present a new world vision or anything, but the blueprints will be interesting enough for several years. You can find the full PowerPoint presentation, in all its hideous glory, here. It’ll be interesting to see how his predictions and prescriptions play out over the next few years. And my main regret right now is that I’ll have graduated by the time he begins teaching his course in the fall. If his humor, intelligence, creativity and boldness are any indication, those should be an interesting three months.

Now if only he could handle PowerPoint.


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