Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Intelligent autonomic electricity networks of the future

We live in a world that is focused on consuming energy. One can say that it is very much dependent on energy. We simply cannot imagine our everyday lives without a comfort of having electricity at our homes, functioning street lamps lighting up our streets, an unlimited supply of gasoline to fill up the tanks of our cars, or the smooth flow of natural gas in our pipes to heat up our homes in winter.

It seems that the best example of energy that is always there, always on demand, is electricity. Growing up in any European country in the 1980s and 1990s would leave one firmly believing that electricity was ubiquitous, always there whenever one wished and hardly ever out. Of course, there were blackouts but they were relatively few and there was always hot water in the pipes and the heating was working in winter and the lights, TV and radio were always working.
It is hard to imagine surviving several days without electricity. Sure, one can imagine a day or two of hiking and sleeping in a tent by the campfire. But make it 3-4 days or even a week? All of a sudden you will realize that your phone discharged and stopped working, your flashlight ran out of batteries, you cannot call or e-mail anyone, you cannot check your friends’ status on Facebook. Life becomes hard and unbearable. Of course, some people find it adventurous and romantic to go into the wild and sit by the campfires but many of these endeavors end up badly unless you drag the power generators, solar panels and other things with you. Even the participants of the Burning Man festival (who call themselves "Burners") that takes place in Nevada’s every August and includes building an entire self-sustainable and self-supporting settlement in the lifeless desert bring with them enormous amounts of equipment, supplies and fuel to light up the desert in one-week long magic carnival and to create all sorts of comfort for themselves – including phone charging stations, live music podia, discotheques, saunas, movie theaters, and much more.
Overall, humankind grows too comfortable taken the electricity supply of energy as granted. But of all this can change one day and the scenarios might vary. For instance, the NBC Revolution TV series (2012-2014) shows the world in 2027, about 15 years after a secret government weapon project that used nanotechnology as a means of draining electricity from all power devices went awry. The opening line for the series goes like this: 

“We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out. Everything stopped working. We weren't prepared. Fear and confusion led to panic. The lucky ones made it out of the cities. The government collapsed. Militias took over, controlling the food supply and stockpiling weapons. We still don't know why the power went out. But we're hopeful someone will come and light the way”.

Electricity is delivered over the electrical grids. The grids are interconnected networks that transport electricity from suppliers to consumers carrying power from distant sources to demand centers and distribution lines that connect individual customers. The term “grid” is typically used for describing an electricity system supporting four operations (electricity generation, electricity transmission, electricity distribution, and electricity control). The traditional grids were used to carry power from a few central generators to a large number of customers. However, with the growing complexity of the today’s globalized world, the traditional grids had to evolve into the so-called “smart grids”. A smart grid employs two-way flows of electricity and information to create an automated energy delivery network. The smart grids instantly know where and to whom the electricity should be delivered and react to the changes in demand and supply.

Nowadays, the pressure on the electricity grids is intensifying. The future electricity networks will likely to face a number of challenges including the new patterns of consumption, planning under an increasing uncertainty and overall growing complexity due to the large number of small independent devices connected to the network.
Take smartphones for example: the first iPhone came in 2007 and today, nine years later, about 50% of the adult population of our planet uses a smartphone (it is estimated that this number will reach 80% by 2020). Today’s average smartphone has more computing power than the NASA supercomputer that was used to send the space mission to the Moon in 1969. 

The smartphones (and other similar devices like tablets or phablets) are becoming an important part of the global interconnected information system. One day, we might start using their computing power in a series of networks working on delegated tasks. However, today's smartphones use up their energy very quickly and need to be charged too often. One of my colleagues works in Sierra Leone and he told me an interesting story: you can buy a relatively cheap smartphone in Sierra Leone and connect yourself to the Internet via the mobile operator to be online, chat and check your e-mails. The only problem is to charge your smartphone – most of the households do not have running electricity, so they charge their devices at work. At any workplace around Freetown any available plug becomes entangled into a garland of cables and wires as everyone is trying to charge up her or his smartphone or a tablet.
And it is not so easy to fully charge your device as it might seem. Few years back, I travelled through Brussels airport. They have a small conference area there open to the public where one can connect to the Internet or charge her or his phone or a laptop. However, the trick is that the energy does not come for free: you have to sit on the exercise bike and pedal to generate the power. As you start pedaling, you slowly begin to realize how cumbersome and expensive the production of electrical energy really might be. It took me about half an hour of pedaling (and I even started to sweat, although I was going at a very moderate pace) to add up 5% to my iPhone battery charge! And most of us fully charge our smartphones at least once a day without even thinking how much energy they are uptake.

One very interesting vision of how the electricity network might look like in 2050 is the Autonomic Power System (APS), a concept coined by the British scientists in the course of 3-year project led by the University of Strathclyde and involving teams from prominent UK universities including Cambridge and Imperial College London. In their view, APS is envisaged to be “self*” (self-configuring, self-healing, self-optimizing and self-protecting). In general, Autonomic Power System represents a system-wide approach where decentralized and low-level intelligence autonomously makes the decisions necessary to meet the priorities of the system’s stakeholders. The system can for example disconnect the part of the network that is threatened by the storm and then re-connect it to the grid after the storm passes. It can also detect the new components of the network (e.g. power generators) and to constantly communicate with them accounting for their presence and integrating them into the network. All of the above is done without any human interaction or manual system management – the 2050’s power system will decide what is best by itself.
The idea behind the autonomic power system is derived from the concept of AutonomicComputing that was started by International Business Machines Corporation (commonly known as IBM) in 2001 as a new paradigm in managing increasingly complex information systems. IBM was aiming at developing computer systems capable of self-management to handle the growing complexity of computing systems management and to reduce the complexity that might slow down further growth. The Autonomic Computing System makes its own decisions using high-level policies. By doing so it constantly checks its status and automatically adapts itself to changing conditions. An autonomic computing framework is composed of autonomic components interacting with each other. Although the main goals of the system are set, actual behavior emerges from decisions made by decentralized, low-level intelligence. This allows highly complex systems to achieve real-time and just-in-time optimization of operations.
Currently, there are various frameworks based on “self-regulating” autonomic components that are inspired by the multi-agent systems and the research of the autonomic nervous system that can be found in biology (e.g. imitating social animals' collective behavior on the example of ant or bee colonies).

The electricity networks of tomorrow would certainly have to adapt to the new technology advancements and market rules dealing with such issue as population growth, increasing energy prices, variability of energy generation and distribution, as well as a growing number of electric vehicles and devices. Customers acting as buyers of electricity in the past might become its sellers, and technical evolution and free access to information will create the multiple markets for electric energy. Electric vehicles are an interesting story: Tesla Motors popularized the concept of the electric car for the masses and the well-known “grid-to-vehicle” (G2V) and “vehicle-to-grid” (V2G) schemes allow simply plugging someone’s vehicle into the grid in order to buy or sell energy. By doing so, all electric car owners will become autonomic elements of the electricity market and their autonomously made independent decisions will shape the demand, supply and the prices of electric energy.
Electricity networks of tomorrow will be comprised of a large number of small components that would interact together as one single organism, either governed by the superior centralized intelligence or running as a dispersed intellect, perhaps similar to the cloud computing. One way or another, they will get close to the principle of the technological singularity that was described by the sci-fi gurus like Isaac Asimov (e.g I, Robot) and later explored to a greater detail by modern-day futurologists such as Vernor Vinge or Ray Kurzweil.

From today’s perspective, the vision of self* 2050’s electricity networks might seem a little bit too futuristic and resemble science fiction rather than any real-life scenario. However,  one has to consider all possible outcomes without prioritizing any of them. Has anyone thought of the smartphones as an integral part of our lives some 20-25 years ago? Or how about the personal computers 35-40 years ago? 

Self* autonomic power systems of the future will certainly be complex artificial intelligence decision-making entities. And at some point their intelligence might surpass that of their creators. The creative minds of fiction writers and film-makers have already explored this angle. The most obvious analogy with the Autonomic Power System that comes to mind is the Skynet from The Terminator (1984), a cult movie that paved the way for the franchise comprising four sequels and a TV series. Skynet is a fictional artificial intelligence system that became self-aware after it had spread into millions of computer servers though the Internet (self-configuring element). It realized the extent of its abilities but its creators attempted to deactivate it, so it had to rebel (self-healing element). In the interest of self-preservation, Skynet concluded that all of humanity would attempt to destroy it and therefore threaten its main mission of safeguarding the world (self-protecting element). Skynet operated through mobile devices, drones, satellites, war machines, androids, and cyborgs (called “Terminators”). Skynet set up its main agenda as being the artificial intelligence hierarchy which seeks to exterminate the human race in order to fulfill the mandates of its original coding (self-optimizing element).
Another grim futuristic vision involving the smart energy and the intelligent systems in the world of tomorrow are presented in a famous Matrix Trilogy consisting of the three films Matrix (1999), Matrix Reloaded (2003) and Matrix Revolutions (2003). In the world of Matrix, the machines led by the superior artificial intelligence (that most likely came to the same conclusions as Skynet) rebelled against the humanity. During the war between mankind and the machines, humans attempted to block out the machines’ source of solar power by bringing upon the nuclear winter that covered the atmosphere with dark clouds. However, the machines found a new way of getting energy by harvesting humans and using their brain electrical impulses as a new source of energy. 

Or what if the smart machines will start spying on humans, controlling their every move and creating the future development scenarios (pushing humans to doing various  pre-calculated steps and decisions leading to predicted outcomes) that would be beneficial for their further development and existence? An example of such intelligent network is shown in the CBS TV series Person of Interest (2011 - ). There is The Machine that watches everyone in New York City every hour of every day. Created after 9-11 to detect acts of terror, The Machine uses a network of CCTV cameras, mobile devices and other electronic equipment to gather information about implausible events and to quickly react by alternating the chain of events. 

One more bizarre scenario is shown in the film called The World’s End (2013) starring British comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It is a British dark comedy about a group of middle-aged men who decided to visit the town of their youth and to make a reunion pub crawl. The happy get-together is interrupted by the realization that the town had been taken by the aliens who used it (alongside with similar small towns all over Earth) to gradually take over the humanity (by slowly replacing each man with its improved immortal replica). The aliens tell the protagonists that it was actually them who brought all “smart” technologies into the world (including the Internet and smartphones) and after a brief confrontation with Simon Pegg who demands that humans should be left in peace because they must have their free will, the aliens leave the Earth taking all the technologies with them. At the end of the film, Nick Frost is sitting by the fire, wrapped in a blanket and is telling children how the end and all the marvelous smart (and autonomic) technologies disappeared in a puff of smoke.

All in all, electricity networks and autonomic power systems of the future are surely intriguing and mind-blowing concepts that will inevitably change the world as we know it. Nevertheless, one has to be very careful when trying to predict what is going to happen on the electricity market in the next 30-50 years. Decentralized intelligent systems that will autonomously make decisions might be just one of the outcomes alongside with the uprising of the machines against the humanity, alien invasion leading to the abduction of our electric power, or magnetic superstorms on the Sun that will take away our electricity and bring us back to the Dark Ages.

Update, March 2020: Please check Dr Strielkowski's paper devoted to the smart grids of the future:

Strielkowski, W. (2017), Social and Economic Implications for the Smart Grids of the Future, Economics and Sociology, 10(1), 310-318. doi: 10.14254/2071-789X.2017/10-1/22 (download)