Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Five technologies disrupting our lives

A look at how Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, Internet of Things, 3-D printing and mixed realitya combination of Augmented Reality and Virtual Realityare transforming businesses

Call it whatever you want—Digital Disruption or Digital Transformation—the fact remains that to stay relevant, organizations need to urgently reinvent their business models and growth strategies by putting digital first. They can do that with the help of newer technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation, blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), 3-D printing, and mixed reality that combines virtual reality and augmented reality. These technologies are not only disrupting and transforming business models and the lives of individuals, but also ushering in the so-called gig economy.

Artificial Intelligence: There’s no stopping it

Almost two decades ago, the late Robin Williams starred in Bicentennial Man as an NDR-114 robot that was eventually declared a human by the courts. That remains science fiction. However, last October, Hong Kong-based Hanson Robotics’ Sophia became the first AI-powered robot ever to get citizenship of a country—Saudi Arabia, even though Sophia pales in comparison to the humanoid in Bicentennial Man or those in Surrogates. Closer home, 38-year-old Ranchi-based Ranjit Srivastava has developed an Indian version of ‘Sophia’, christened Rashmi.

AI has no superpower, as yet. However, broadly defined as the desire to replicate human intelligence in machines, AI is undoubtedly becoming smarter with every passing day on the back of advancements in machine-learning and deep-learning algorithms, humongous amounts of Big Data on which these algorithms can be trained, and the phenomenal increase in computing power.

Such developments have, understandably, given rise to the fear that automation and AI will take away our jobs and eventually become more intelligent than human beings. A study by EY and Nasscom predict that by 2022, around 46% of the workforce will be engaged in entirely new jobs that do not exist today, or will be deployed in jobs that have radically-changed skill sets.

A 2017 survey by Statista finds that 78% of firms globally are either using AI extensively, or have plans for use in near future. However, adoption of AI in India has been slow and remains limited. Estimates indicate that only 22% of the firms in India use AI in any business process but things will improve now that the Indian government has woken up to AI’s potential.

AI is poised to disrupt our world and India, being the fastest-growing economy with the second-largest population in the world, has a significant stake in the AI revolution, NITI Aayog acknowledged in its June 2018 discussion paper titled ‘National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence’. Arguing that India has the potential to position itself among leaders on the global AI map “with a unique brand of #AIforAll", NITI Aayog has decided to focus on five sectors: healthcare, agriculture, education, smart cities and infrastructure, and smart mobility and transportation. This, even as it recognizes that the country lacks broad-based expertise in research and application of AI, and that there is a pressing need for privacy and security, including a lack of formal regulations around anonymization of data.

Blockchain: Building a trusted network

Early this month, the World Bank mandated the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to arrange the world’s first blockchain bond. The Kangaroo bond, referring to foreign bonds issued in Australia in the local currency, has been named bond-i, according to a 10 August CNBC report. Closer home, the Telangana State Information Technology, Electronics and Communication department signed an agreement on 3 August, with information Technology (IT) services provider Tech Mahindra to launch India’s first Blockchain district in Telangana.

Blockchain, primarily known for powering cryptocurrencies like bitcoins, is a form of Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT) that promises to reduce costs and establish trust, but faces challenges like the speed of processing transactions. Its popularity lies in the fact that participants have a copy of the ledger’s data that contains the most recent transactions or changes, thus reducing the need to establish trust using traditional methods.

Blockchain is “pulling us into a new era of openness, decentralization and global inclusion", states a June 2017 paper by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Large banking, financial services and insurance firms, manufacturing firms and governments across the world are already testing blockchain proofs of concept.

A blockchain network can either be public or private (permissioned), based on who is authorized to participate. One may like it to the difference between an intranet and the internet. Most pilots are being done with private blockchains.

In India, for instance, banks have formed ‘BankChain’—an alliance of banks formed in February 2017 to explore and build blockchain-based solutions. The BankChain community has 37 members, with representations from 28 Indian banks, including State Bank of India, ICICI Bank Ltd, Kotak Mahindra Bank Ltd, HDFC Bank Ltd and Yes Bank Ltd. Two years ago, for instance, the Mahindra Group and IBM announced the development of a cloud-based permissioned blockchain solution in a bid to reinvent supply chain finance across India by enhancing security, transparency and operational processes.

Blockchain technology can also disrupt public health by creating a secure and flexible ecosystem for exchanging electronic health records (EHRs). Student records, faculty records and educational certificates can be maintained with the application of blockchain technology. Other possible applications include the use of blockchain technology to record and manage agricultural land records as well as agriculture insurance. Blockchain technology can also be deployed to create a marketplace for electric power supply.

Internet of Things: Making the right connections

Have you ever wondered how your Smart TV can communicate with your Smart refrigerator and order food or drinks from your local grocer when it is empty? It is because of the IoT—a concept that allows various devices to communicate with each other with the help of embedded sensors.

The increased adoption is due to the availability of versatile low-cost sensors, improved infrastructure with ongoing deployment of 4G LTE, Wi-Fi and small cell networks and huge volumes of data. IoT is only expected to reach the tipping point with 5G networks.

The IoT market in India is expected to grow to $15 billion with 2.7 billion units by 2020, according to Nasscom. The global IoT market is expected to grow to over $3 trillion in the same period, driven both by consumer and industrial applications.

Some hospitals in India, for instance, have started providing wearable devices to pregnant mothers, which when paired with a mobile phone app, gives real-time information on foetal heart rate, labour progress, and uterine activities and transmits it to the doctor who can access it on a mobile device.

Further, the government’s 100 smart cities project, Digital India programme, Make in India project and Smart Energy project are expected to proliferate the deployment of IoT devices in India. The government is also partnering with start-ups and mentoring them to develop innovative solutions in areas such as education tech, healthcare tech, e-governance, finance and agriculture. Besides, sensors inside offshore drilling rigs constantly monitor the performance of gas turbines for damages as well as regulate the pressure of the oil below the ocean surface.

The complexity of the IoT system, however, requires essential rules on data management, security, latency and reliability issues. Besides, IoT will require AI as a companion since IoT will produce a treasure trove of big data that will need to be intelligently analysed with machine learning to draw meaningful insights for businesses.

3-D Printing: Changing face of manufacturing

Three-dimensional (3-D) printing is changing the face of traditional manufacturing. Today, 3-D printers not only make jewellery and toothbrushes but also football boots, racing-car parts, custom-designed cakes, human organs, houses, aeroplane parts and even more efficient lithium-ion batteries. And yes! They even provide blueprints for 3D-printed guns.

Last month, a US federal judge blocked defdist.org from sharing blueprints of 3-D guns. However, the ruling came after thousands of people had already downloaded blueprints for these weapons. As a precautionary measure, some 3-D printing firms are now using gun-blocking software to deter people from printing functional guns, according to a 14 August report by radio programme producer NPR.

According to 6Wresearch, India’s 3-D printer market is projected to touch $79 million by 2021. The growth triggers include the low cost of manufacturing, increased applications and the Make In India campaign. In India, 3-D printers have been used in medical, architecture, automotive, industrial, aerospace, military and other applications, where automotive application accounts for the largest revenue and volume share.

Four years ago, for instance, a team of Indian plastic surgeons at the Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (Jipmer) in Puducherry restored the deformed skull of a three-year-old girl to its original shape with the help of a 3-D printer that was sourced from a Mumbai-based 3-D printer maker, Divide By Zero Technologies. Jipmer now has its own 3-D Printer.

3-D printing belongs to a class of techniques known as additive manufacturing, or building objects layer by layer. The most common household 3D-printing process involves a “print head", which allows for any material from plastic (and now metals too) to be extruded or squirted through a nozzle. To be sure, there’s also the concept of 4-D printing, which allows materials to “self-assemble" into 3-D structures, and which was initially proposed by Skylar Tibbits of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in April 2013.

Globally, the 3-D printer market is expected to be worth $32.78 billion by 2023, according to research firm Markets and Markets. The aerospace and defence vertical, according to the report, held the largest share of the global 3-D printing market in 2016.

Globally established companies such as Stratasys and Optomec have footprints in India through partnerships and alliances, notes the above-cited 6Wresearch note. Major companies active in the Indian 3D-printing market space are Altem Technologies, Imaginarium, Brahma 3, KCbots and JGroup Robotics.

Mixed Reality: Combining AR and VR

If you sit on Disney Research’s Magic Bench, you may have an elephant hand you a glowing orb. Or, a tiny donkey might saunter by and kick the bench. Similarly, scientists at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute are using the Microsoft HoloLens to explore complex biological network in 3-D, creating a tool that may help find critical links between proteins and genes related to disorders like cancer and diabetes. Both these examples highlight the melding of technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) with the real world to give users and businesses a world of the so-called “mixed" reality (MR) or “blended" reality concept.

While VR is all about a world created solely on computers or online, AR still deals with the real world and has elements of the virtual world built atop it, akin to layers of information. MR mixes both realities (VR and AR) in a bid to capture the best of both worlds. However, for mixed reality to gain traction, you need headsets and mixed reality content too.

Regardless, investors believe that mixed reality has the potential to become the next big computing platform. Consider this. No one had seen the Magic Leap One goggles ever. Yet, the company managed to raise investments of almost $2 billion, notably from Google, Alibaba Group, Temasek and JP Morgan Investment Management.

This month, though, mixed reality headset maker Magic Leap finally announced that the Magic Leap One Creator Edition will be available in the US for $2,295. Other major players in the global MR market include Intel Corp., Seiko Epson Corp., Microsoft Corp., Accenture PLC., Google, Inc., Sony Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., Facebook Inc., and HTC Corp. In India, we have start-ups like Imaginate Technologies Inc., too, which are increasingly betting on MR.

Research firm Gartner Inc. predicts that by 2019, AR, VR and MR solutions will be evaluated and adopted in 20% of large-enterprise businesses.

The global MR market size is expected to reach $2.8 billion by 2023, according to research firm Reportbuyer.com. It believes that the rapid growth will come from increasing demand for innovative and wearable products. The aerospace and defence sectors, it says, could use MR products for training programmes. The technology can also be used effectively in schools since it provides 3-D images, leading to an interactive learning experience, according to the report.

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