IoT Technologies: to the future and beyond our imagination

Part I: Core IoT Technologies

“With the current emerging technologies Man will soon be able to get to Mars.” So said the mythical NASA astronaut Captain Scott Kelly in a working lunch that I had the pleasure of attending with various executives at the CSCMP 2016 Conference on 26 September in Orlando. Scott Kelly holds the record for the longest stay in space, standing at more than 400 days, and has participated in numerous space missions, foremost of which was the one in 2015 when he celebrated a full year aboard the International Space Station. Kelly argued that the technology that enabled Man to get to the Moon had less processing capacity than his Smart Phone and that today’s technological advances are more than capable of getting a crewed mission to Mars, 56 million kilometres away with guarantees of successfully getting them back.

This is a notion shared by the President of the United States, Barack Obama, who in declarations made on 11 October claimed that this goal could be reached within 15 years. This would be done in collaboration with private space enterprises Boeing and SpaceX –the company founded by Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, Hyperloop and OpenAI.

On 25 October I had the honour of being invited to give a talk at the Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation hosted by Professor Panos Kuvalis at Washington University of St. Louis US, titled “IT & Global Supply Chain Management Strategy: A Japanese Manufacturing Perspective”, where I presented a recent study on the implementation of the emerging technologies related to Industry 4.0 and the vision of Japanese industrial companies, conducted in collaboration with my colleagues Professor Michiya Morita and Professor Yukari Shirota of the Gakushuin University. The speaker who preceded me was Kory Mathews, Vice President of Autonomous Systems at Boeing Military Aircraft, who also reiterated the impact many of these systems will have not only on global supply chains but also on many aspects of our lives and industries. He added that quite a few of these technologies are not new, although miniaturisation and low cost were, and that their reliability had been amply proven thanks to IoT and AI, which have been made accessible to society and the economy.

There is a general consensus that we are witnessing the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a key moment in which technologies are capable of supporting the visions of enterprise leaders, which in turn drive the development and expansion of these technologies. These visionary leaders see the tremendous potential of the transformation these technologies provide us. Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, explored the possibilities in his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution: “It is characterized by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, biological and digital worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human”.

But what are these technologies and what can they do for us, for businesses and for society? How do we connect the dots that trace the outline that shows us the map of the future to come? It is not an easy task, as we are talking about different technologies and disciplines that are considered separate domains of knowledge and skills.

Leonardo Da Vinci, the greatest exponent of European Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries, would probably love to live in this current era, just as he lived during the transition period between the Middle Ages and the modern age, of which, as a great multidisciplinary genius, he was the driver, in which there was a great simultaneous revival of the arts and sciences, both natural and social. Today we are living through the accelerated fusion of three great worlds – the physical, the digital and the biological. The knowledge and skills of these until now separate worlds have begun to be shared in multidisciplinary collaborations of scientists, experts and professionals in order to jointly create innovative applications. The boundaries of industry as we know them are starting to blur.

Fortunately, we do not have to have Da Vinci’s mental or creative capacity to be able to understand the world around us. The following sections enumerate and briefly describe some of the foremost emerging technologies related to IoT, starting with core technologies. We will see how some technologies need others in order to work and evolve in this new interdisciplinary world.

Internet of Things (IoT)

This is the standard medium or platform of communication between things, people and computers via the Internet. It is equivalent to the railway lines during the First Industrial Revolution, which allowed trains, propelled by steam from their boilers, to move and connect cities and people. In the business world, IoT involves connecting industries, businesses, commerce and clients without human intervention. And the IoT strategic approach would be aimed at the experience of the client, at designing new client-centred business, product, services and operation models. The legendary Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Continuing with the simile of the First Industrial Revolution, locomotive steam engines and factories were what drove social and industrial advance. Artificial intelligence is the engine of machine-based learning, capable of generating new knowledge and of making instant, and in most cases, more reliable decisions than those made by humans. Let’s focus a little more in one specific area of AI –machine learning –, which include the techniques that enable computers to learn by themselves.

Today, it has been demonstrated that the chances of a self-driving vehicle having an accident are lower than if driven by a human. There are three things AI can do much better than humans: control, optimise and predict. In China it is now possible to receive a preliminary medical diagnosis that has been carried out entirely through AI, with a greater-than-average reliability. This AI system has been developed by Baidu, a Chinese company that also develops AI technology for self-driving cars, with an R&D centre in Silicon Valley and which has been classified as the “second most intelligent” company in the world by the MIT Technology Review. First place in the AI business ranking is held by Amazon, while third place is held by the world’s largest DNA sequencing company, Illumina, which is developing a test to detect a range of cancers at a cost of less than $1,000 per test.

Big Data

The first locomotives needed coal as an energy source. These days, they say that “Big Data” could be the new oil of economic power. AI needs trillions of pieces of old and real-time data to achieve its efficiency. These huge data banks would be akin to the oil wells and will become valuable strategic reserves. But data alone is useless and, in the same way that oil needs refining into petrol, data also need to be refined. And the result of refined Big Data is information.

This massive use of personal data could lead to ethical and moral conflicts, which would be like today’s pollution by hydrocarbons. Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft have come together to form a collaborating committee made up of 10 members to promote the development of best practices and the ethical use of AI. Although a spokesperson for the committee has confirmed that they do not intend to lobby, we are beginning to see who wants to position themselves as the big “oil” companies of the future.

At the moment, the European Union is putting all possible legal obstacles in the way of Facebook connecting it personal databases with those of the recently acquired Twitter, given that the strategic aim of this M&A seems to be to amass data in order to generate marketable data about people.

On the other hand, the Chinese government has announced the implementation in 2020 of a system based on the massive capture of its citizens’ big data, which will help to foster a society in which honesty and civility prevail, thereby detecting possible fraudulent behaviour. A number of European governments are following the same route to prevent tax evasion through the merging of their databases.

If until now we have valued companies by their financial capital, their human capital, their reputational capital (brand value), intellectual property capital… we will very soon start to consider information capital as a must.

Intelligent Sensors

These enable things and machines to perceive the physical world around them and to combine it with the digital world to provide the information necessary in the decision-making processes carried out by machines communicating with each other. Most IoT-related applications, industrial or otherwise, need intelligent sensors for their real-time interactive functioning and constitute what is known as the user interface.

There are many types of sensors: our car, even though it may not be a self-driver, has dozens of sensors that transmit information in real time to the control centre to manage the vehicle’s smooth operation and safety. By connecting this control centre to an IoT platform, we would be able to generate a large amount of big data, which could be easily handled by AI (we would only need a cheap 3G mobile phone connection).

Self-driving vehicles have all their sensors, intelligent or not, connected to an IoT platform that uses an impressive array of inertia sensors and three additional types of specific sensors for its autopilot function: cameras, radar and GPS. As self-driving vehicles become more popular, we will see today’s increasingly intelligent utility vehicles –smart cars– mutating mainly towards IoT in order to provide us with greater performance –control from our smart phone and remote voice control– and an optimum maintenance service.

And talking of smart phones, the new iPhone 7 has 14 dedicated sensors that enhance its user interface: a proximity sensor, an ambient light sensor, 12MP and 7MP cameras, a microphone, an active noise cancellation microphone, an accelerometer, a barometer, a three-axis gyroscope, an A-GPS, a GLONASS (Russian satellite navigation system), an NFC antenna for Apple Pay, a touch ID fingerprint scanner and a pressure sensitive display.

With the miniaturization of smart sensors and the exponential development of biosensors and nanotechnology, we will find sensors everywhere, including the human body, carrying out tests, dosing drugs and guiding highly focused microsurgery.

In the next post we will review the most important emerging technologies that are supported by IoT, AI and intelligent sensors.

Until then, I’ll leave you with a dichotomy regarding the new models of digital business recounted by Seth Bodnar, Chief Digital Officer GE Transportation in the CSCMP 2016 Conference: “Disrupt, or be disrupted”. What do you think? I confess I have no particular interest in disrupting anybody, but I am interested in them not disrupting me.

If the subject interests you, I recommend the Forbes article “Disrupt, or be disrupted” written by Randy Ottinger, Executive Vice President at Kotter International, the company founded by my much admired Professor John Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School.

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