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March 01, 2010  |  permalink

The Master Plan: HP Builds a “Central Nervous System for the Earth”


HP Labs researcher Peter Hartwell holds a prototype vibration and movement sensor, a super-sensitive inertial accelerometer. The first to be deployed as part of HP Labs’ Central Nervous System for Earth (CeNSE), it is about 1,000 times more sensitive than today’s mass-produced devices.  Photo: Margie Wylie

(Originally posted on

Just days after Cisco signaled it will horn into IBM’s turf by rewiring an aging city in Massachusetts, Hewlett Packard announced this morning the first commercial application of its own holistic blueprint—the torturously acronymed “CeNSE” (short for Central Nervous System for the Earth). Much like IBM’s “Smarter Planet” campaign, HP proposes sticking billions of sensors on everything in sight and boiling down the resulting flood of data into insights for making the world a better, greener place. But what sets HP apart from its rivals is its determination to create a smarter planet almost entirely within house, from sensors of its own design and manufacture to servers to software to the consultants who will tie it all together. And its first customer could not be less green: Shell Oil.

The world’s best seller of PCs and its biggest oil company will collaborate on a wireless sensor network to aid in oil exploration. In the system they imagine, sensors like the one seen above will be laid on the ground at regular intervals across hundreds of square miles, listening for sound waves bounced through miles of sub-strata and hopefully pockets of oil. This seismic data will be uploaded to HP-supplied servers and processed by Shell’s proprietary software to map the subterranean lay of the land. “The current state of the art isn’t good enough, and certainly is not what we want it to be,” said Wim Walk, manager of novel geophysical technologies for Shell. “We hope to really make a leap forward in quality. This project is designed to gain a competitive advantage for us onshore.”

Walk declined to quantify what that advantage will be (and financial terms were not disclosed), although HP Labs director Prith Bannerjee boasted that his team’s sensors, unveiled in November, “are a thousand times more sensitive” than the accelerometers in current models. Better instruments equals better images, which translates to drilling fewer exploratory wells and recovering every last drop from existing ones, thus driving down the cost of production.

Building a better sensor is one thing; building one that’s good enough and cheap enough at scale is another. So-cheap-as-to-be-free sensors are at the heart of every vision for smarter cities, which also go by the names of “ubiquitous computing” or “the Internet of Things.” While Moore’s Law has been doing its thing for more than a decade now, shrinking both the size of sensors and their cost, they have yet to reach the tipping point of mass adoption. HP is taking the matter into its own hands with plans to embed up to a trillion tiny sensors worldwide over the next decade. It has one advantage its rivals do not: it is already the world’s largest producer and consumer of micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), which are embedded in millions of its inkjet printers. For Shell, HP will produce its own MEMS sensors at the Corvallis, Oregon plant of its Imaging and Printing Group. One of the project’s goals is to achieve the economies of scale which have so far eluded other manufacturers like Texas Instruments.

Unlike IBM, which has positioned itself as primarily a smarter city integrator, or Cisco, which has teamed up with 3M and United Technologies to handle nitty-gritty tasks while it focuses on the network, HP appears determined to fulfill its CeNSE vision from soup-to-nuts. The Shell deal not only includes sensors designed by HP Labs and fabricated by its printing group, but also HP’s own networking, storage, servers, and software products, overseen by consultants from its Enterprise Services arm (formerly EDS). “The whole world of IT is shifting into a world of plants, pipettes, and forests, and not just the back office,” said Jeff Wacker, the leader of services innovation at HP and the head of its efforts to commercialize CeNSE.

Although HP’s first customer isn’t a city, but a corporation, its long-term goal is to develop sensors mimicking each of the five senses and stud them throughout physical environments. In an interview last fall, Stan Williams, the director of HP’s Information and Quantum Systems Lab, said the company was looking for “city-level” projects. “You need at least a million sensors to tackle every piece of the puzzle,” he said. “There are very few companies, probably less than a handful, who have both the wherewithal and the vision to engage in something like this.” City-level projects will be necessary “to understand the situation at scale, and to bring together all of the aspects at scale.”

If that happens, HP should expect to run into the same difficulties technology companies experienced once before when trying to sell consumers on all-inclusive “digital homes.” While purchasing managers appreciate integrated solutions, residents usually don’t. HP’s CeNSE effort mirrors the recent trend toward industry consolidation (as seen in Oracle-Sun, Dell-Perot Systems, and HP-3Com) to better sell complete lineups of hardware, software, networking and services to large customers. This approach may work well for the #1 company in the Fortune Global 500, but it’s far from clear whether tech companies can create services people actually want, instead of ones they want them to have.

The Shell deal also unintentionally explodes the myth that a smarter planet is necessarily a greener one. HP’s bleeding-edge accelerometers are being deployed for the least green thing you can think of: sucking every last drop of oil out of the ground. While absolutely necessary for the current trajectory of our way of life (and buying us more time to develop alternatives), it’s hard to argue that technology for more efficiently recovering fossil fuels is in any way sustainable. (Although Wacker gamely argues the same technology is needed for finding empty pockets suitable for carbon sequestration.) While corporate-sponsored smarter cities can, in fact, be greener ones, their charter is the same as it ever was: profit.

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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