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This is our ‘Tower of Babel’ moment

We stand at the precipice of near-perfect knowledge and ubiquitous communication: translation, devices and people, connected at all times and communicating seamlessly. Every device can communicate with every device—more data and discussion were generated this year than in all of history combined. Each device has perfect knowledge between them with infinite bandwidth, storage and compute available on demand.

The fiction of the Matrix is a near reality—ones and zeroes flowing around us, a mesh fabric of reality.

We are reaching towering heights, but we risk building a tower to the sky with no purpose. Employing technology to see what we are capable of is not an end—we must solve problems and advance our knowledge and ability to give people better lives around the world. We are at a crossroads.

The IoT and the ‘Tower of Babel’

In many ways, the IoT revolution parallels the story of the ‘Tower of Babel’. The ‘Tower of Babel’ wasn’t built as a fortification, housing or even to provide an awe-inspiring view of Earth. It was built to see how high we could reach—to challenge the gods and creation.

Corporations see the IoT as an opportunity to deliver greater efficiency or new subscription business models like Zuora. A lot of our effort is on building intelligent devices to perform jobs that people currently do with the intention of replacing them.

Let’s run this scenario to its logical extreme. If we proceed along this course, it will soon be in a company’s best interest to replace most or all of its workers. And this will be the rational choice for most every company to maintain relative cost advantage. The result is that there will be very few workers. Put another way, there will be very few people with the money to afford the services that these fully automated companies offer. And the system will collapse under itself—the tower could fall.

The neophyte view is to try to stop short of automating everything that could be. But in an arms race to use technology to derive competitive advantage, no logical actor is going to pull up short: It’s a prisoner’s dilemma.

Create. Automate. Create time, resource and capability to Innovate. Then Invent. Scale. This is where our true value lies. A new class of innovators is looking to unlock the true value of humans—innovation, creativity and inspiration. Do we really want to preserve jobs in factories, which are, frankly, a waste of our collective human potential, or would it be better to allow everyone to tap into the power of innovation: to create a global innovators club fueled by technology as the new palette of paint—a new renaissance?

The transparency of technology

Once people have reliable access to air, water and food, they stop spending time thinking about them. And so we have untethered ourselves from the hunter/gatherer model and its limited-value creation to usher in the Knowledge Worker. But rather than replace and eliminate the Knowledge Worker, the IoT can promote an evolution to our next level of capability: the Innovation Worker.

With technology, we continue to shorten the distance between a thought and its manifestation in the world. Bringing a product to market used to require tremendous financial investment, years of development and the ability to bring together components and information separated by thousands of miles.

Today, the rate of innovation can be measured in months, weeks and even days, depending upon the application. For example, 3D printers and laser cutters enable us to iterate design and take an idea to a physical prototype more quickly than we have ever been able to do so before.

This evolution impacts our culture as well. Consider that, to children with smartphones, so many layers of technology have become transparent to them. They don’t have to know about how devices connect with each other or how to write a Bluetooth stack or how to securely control and update a device remotely. They just assume two inanimate objects are connected out of the box. The new generation of innovators can look much further ahead than those of us who still think about these things as LEGO blocks that we need to create or solve for. For them, the mesh of connectivity is a foundational layer of Maslov’s hierarchy of technology.

We can already see the truth of this in the tremendous innovation being developed by high school and college students. Check out Kai Kloeper’s design to increase gun safety by locking out a gun to everyone except the person whose fingerprint matches. Kai made the first prototype at the age of 17. Invention has gone quantum, parallel and multi-dimensional, and the acceleration is leaving linear approaches behind. That’s why Arrow has become a technology platform that supports quantum innovation.

The IoT is even an opportunity for us to step out of our doomsday thinking that is stuck in scarcity: We don’t have enough time, money or resources to save the planet. Perhaps this is true given our current innovation limitations. But we do not have to remain trapped in our old ways of thinking. With a focus on unleashing surplus value in people and around us, a very different future unfolds—a tower that is a shrine to improved lives and outcomes, not to technology in its own right.

Consider the partnership between Arrow and Semios to save crops, improve our environment and grow cleaner food by reducing pesticide use. Traditionally, farmers have been at war with insects. The solution has been to kill both “bad” bugs and the good ones, as well as potentially poison our own food, water and air. With IoT technology, Semios has created a pheromone-based pest management system that leverages how insects naturally communicate to prevent damage to fruit crops. It turns out that we can coexist with insects and foster more of them to help with our crops: Annihilation and reduction isn’t the answer. We use their pheromones to redirect and encourage the reproduction of helpful species.

This is only the beginning. What’s the most abundant resource in the human body? Water. The scale required to track water quality, however, is beyond the capabilities of people to do so manually. With IoT technology like that being developed by WaterBot, D-Link and others’ data that was impossible to collect at scale before is now at our fingertips. As this technology spreads, we are going to understand for the first time how the single-largest resource we consume is helping us or hurting us because we will finally know how its quality and composition vary in real time.

To survive, we must focus on creativity

Ultimately, we are the gods of our own creations. And this is our ‘Tower of Babel’ moment. We can chase technology for its own sake, continuing to replace and eliminate people from the system.

Or we can recognize that progress is the story of humanity, not technology. By being vigilant and maintaining our focus on enabling people to be more creative, we can further close the gap between ideas and reality to unleash our greatest potential.

Imagine the future where we stop thinking about moving boxes so that we can focus our creative power on solving people’s problems and creating value. In fact, we will have more than enough mind space and freedom to discover new ways of understanding value. Who knows how much we will be able to expand and scale our ability to solve problems when everyone can innovate.

From here, we will be able to invent new approaches to life and overcome division. Imagine what we’ll create as we learn to work together seamlessly on a global scale.

We will continue to increase the speed at which we innovate. We will also accelerate our social and ethical learning, building an inclusive world.

The analogy shouldn’t be the ‘Tower of Babel’—it should be Promethean. We can steal fire from the gods and change the destiny of our world and lives. We don’t fear innovation or its pace—in fact, we need innovation to accelerate to tackle the problems we know of and the ones we are creating as we fumble our way through learning to harness the awesome power of fire through technology.

Whether it’s the true story of Arrow enabling We Care Solar to unleash the power of solar-energized, ruggedized technology in birthing centers in Rwanda or the evolution of Arrow Certified Indiegogo startup Matrix from body-powered watches to a company using micro-fluctuations in the air to power sensors off the grid worldwide, imagine the commercial implications. Imagine the new problems we can solve. Innovation begets innovation.

Ambient intelligence requires cloud platforms with flexible AI deployment

To build truly intelligent ambient environments, organizations are adopting cloud-based platforms that can apply artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms across all kinds of IoT deployments—spanning from the edge to the cloud.

At the airport, you check in by showing your ID and boarding pass—just once—and then breeze through baggage, security and boarding without showing any documents again. After your flight, a self-driving car pulls up directly in front of you at the airport curb, arriving at just the right time to take you directly to your hotel. At the hotel, you are checked in automatically as you enter the front door, and a digital key to your hotel room is loaded to an app on your smartphone. As you approach your room, the door unlocks and the lighting and heating adjust themselves to fit your tastes—all without anyone lifting a single finger.

Making this hassle-free scenario possible is a range of technologies working collaboratively, including surveillance cameras, artificial intelligence (AI) face-recognition algorithms, location-aware apps and the internet of things (IoT). In combination, these and other technologies comprise the building blocks of “ambient intelligence,” i.e., environments that are aware and can interact with individuals. In the era of ambient intelligence, such technologies often are virtually invisible, integrating into the environment to simplify everyday tasks, enhance safety and allow individuals to become more productive.

Many of the capabilities described at the beginning of this article already exist, from a streamlined passenger identification system at Aruba Airport, to Waymo’s driverless transportation service for guests at a Phoenix hotel, to Hilton’s Digital Key, to Marriott’s smart-room project. However, to build truly intelligent ambient environments, organizations are adopting cloud-based platforms that can apply artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms across all kinds of IoT deployments—spanning from the edge to the cloud.

Cloud-based solutions, such as Microsoft’s Azure, are essential to enabling ambient intelligence. Working in combination with edge-computing solutions, these platforms allow customers to quickly develop applications and to manage and maintain devices. They also allow customers to take full advantage of the information gathered by ambient-intelligent systems, using cloud-based analytics and artificial intelligence to turn data into useful insights that can generate new revenue and business opportunities.

Inside ambient-intelligence products

At their heart, devices that support ambient intelligence are IoT devices, i.e., embedded systems equipped with sensors and wireless network connectivity. However, such devices also are defined by other characteristics, including context awareness, personalization, adaptiveness and anticipatory intelligence.

The successful implementation of such capabilities is dependent on AI technologies, including face recognition, object recognition, natural language processing and human action recognition. Some ambient devices are employing limited amounts of AI, instead focusing on hardware and operational technologies, like sensors and communications. However, such inadequate AI capabilities eventually will stymie the capabilities of ambient-intelligence systems.

To overcome deficiencies in intelligence, ambient intelligence devices can send AI algorithms to the cloud for processing. However, cloud processing presents drawbacks in terms of power consumption and performance. As a result, many new IoT devices are integrating more sophisticated electronics—such as graphics processing unit (GPU) microchips—that are capable of handling compute-intensive AI tasks. For example, GPU market leader Nvidia is offering the TX2 Developer Kit designed for building AI-enabled edge devices and software.

A truly flexible ambient intelligence platform should be able to support both cloud and edge AI deployments, providing the flexibility needed to work with any type of device, whether that device has built-in AI capabilities or not.

The following sections examine the solution companies are using for their ambient-intelligence projects.

Shell technology puts safety first at gas stations

Royal Dutch Shell is an energy giant, listed as the world’s fifth largest company in terms of revenue in 2017, according to the Fortune 500 ranking. The company operates 44,000 gas stations worldwide, serving 30 million retail customers.

For these stations, safety and security are paramount concerns, with occurrences such as thefts, smoking, car accidents and refueling mishaps potentially resulting in dangerous and costly problems. Surveillance cameras can collect video of such events. However, to make this video useful, it must be monitored and reviewed—a process that can consume massive quantities of time, money and manpower when conducted manually.

Shell is aiming to provide a faster and cheaper alternative using AI technologies. The company has developed a system that uses closed-circuit camera footage and IoT technology to automatically identify safety hazards and quickly alert staff to quickly respond to potential problems. Deep-learning algorithms located in the cloud and the edge monitor the video feeds and identify any events that could represent a safety or security issue.

This approach is much faster, less expensive and less labor intensive than manual review.

When building a pilot version of this system, Shell chose Microsoft’s Azure platform to serve as the basis. Azure is designed to support the building and management of applications and services. Microsoft’s Azure IoT Edge offering is a cloud service that can distribute and run algorithms on cross-platform IoT devices, allowing AI applications to run both in the cloud or offline.

Honeywell offers building-automation solution

Product and system vendor Honeywell is a leader in commercial building automation systems and products. Honeywell now is offering the Honeywell Vector Occupant App, designed to serve the needs of building managers and occupants by promoting greater efficiency.

The Vector Occupant App leverages IoT connectivity to deliver features including indoor location, mapping, routing, presence, proximity notifications and analytics. With the App, building occupants can unlock doors remotely, issue their opinions on room comfort levels and reserve meeting spaces from their smartphones—among other capabilities.

Honeywell chose Azure to power its app. Azure provides cloud-based big-data processing that allows the app to enhance the usefulness of its analytics.

View SmartProtect smartens up windows

View Inc. is a provider of smart-window products. The company’s SmartProtect solution can automatically and instantly detect any glass breakage. When breakage occurs, a warning is sent through Azure IoT to SmartProtect, informing customers about the time and location of the breakage.

View stated that SmartProtect is just the first of many Azure-based IoT solutions it plans to offer. The company aims to bring greater intelligence and personalization to buildings via smart window technology.

The ambient intelligence future

With the technological building blocks in place, the number of ambient technology deployments is likely to rise dramatically in the coming years. Organizations engaged in ambient intelligence projects need to adopt cloud platforms that can support both cloud and edge deployments to develop exciting new applications. Cloud-based solutions like Azure offer capabilities that are essential for deploying and managing IoT systems, as well as for conducting data analytics required in successful ambient intelligence deployments.

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