The way all devices are becoming networked, referred to as the Internet of Things, is about to take a leap forward, as vastly greater intelligence gets built into automation. But it requires both vision and investment, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
There is bad news for fans of science fiction movies like Star Trek and Star Wars: the near future does not promise “warp speed” that can take us to the next galaxy in a few blinks of an evolved eye or three. The good news is that we are about to take another warp speed-like leap into the future.
“We’ve barely started – we’re in the first hour of the first day of the first week of the networking revolution,” says Dr Marcus Weldon, chief technical officer of Alcatel–Lucent and president of Bell Labs, which could be said to have started all the trouble with its founder’s invention of the telephone back in the 19th century.
He was speaking at the recent launch in London of the first book by Bell Labs, entitled “The Future X Network”, which argues that automation is about to enter a new era, driven by massive network capacity and interconnectedness. The result will be a revolution across numerous sectors and disciplines, from vehicles to medicine to tourism.
“In each of the industrial revolutions there was a measure of automation. But, most of the time, automation was still local, and a local control room managing the local process. That’s still the world of today.
“What we’re talking about is extreme or remote automation, or the virtualisation of automation. You can run anything from anywhere, so you could create a virtual production line which would have virtual products built in one place, and printed on a 3D printing machine elsewhere.”
This level of networking will be made possible by massive increases in data availability, speed and analysis.
And there is an additional factor that will ensure this is not your great-grandfather’s automation.
“Automation has been an element of previous industrial revolutions, but this is the era of intelligent automation of everything. The Internet of Things is becoming a tired term, because is makes it sound like its just about networking of things. The Automation of Everything (AoE) is what it’s about, in that you have things being networked, but also the intelligence built into it.”
Weldon believes that the AoE will be routinely used to solve problems.
“Let’s start with basic examples: if you place instruments throughout the water supply and immediately know where water is leaking out of conduits and water facilities, you can optimise that infrastructure. Twenty per cent of the world’s water supply is lost through leaks. If you can see where the leaks are as they occur, you can improve the water supply by 20 per cent and, in many countries, by much more than that.
“You can say the same of roads and traffic. If you can optimise traffic flow, you create more efficient use of infrastructure. If you have more intelligent automation of that system, you get more bang for your buck from investment. If you can get 20 or 40 per cent more bang for your buck, that’s free money, just by adding intelligent control.”
Investment in fibre optic networks is an obvious move for creating the supporting infrastructure for more efficiency in all systems, says Weldon. Not only does it result in a greater return on investment, but frees up capital for expanding infrastructure.
“You can add massive amounts of new capacity that allows you to do new things. I may have enough wireless capacity to put sensors along road or railways, but maybe not enough to have 100 sensors per person. But if make it more efficient, then add and add and add, that’s how you create a digital society. That’s how you move from today to tomorrow.”
He gives examples ranging from virtual tours of the Kruger Park to mining companies in Australia being able to analyse massive amounts of data on site rather than having to transport it physically to other locations for analysis. Not only is the analysis faster, but far more can be discovered through applying far more powerful analytics.
“We’re not even talking about new data; they just can’t afford to operate on all the data they have! All kinds of stuff comes for ‘free’ if you’re willing to make the investment.”
The challenge is no longer the technology to make all of this possible. The real challenge is having the vision for a future that is built on the foundation of this technology. In the absence of both the vision and the foundation, one can throw any amount of tablets and gadgets at schools and students, for example, and see little return on investment.
Smart home arrives in SA
The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.
The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.
The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.
The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.
The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.
The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.
My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.
Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.
Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?
These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.
Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.
Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.
Matrics must prepare for AI
By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.
Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.
With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.
Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.
Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist.
So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?
For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.
In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.
This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.
In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.
As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.
This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.
The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.