Illustration of people standing on pedestals with VR headsets, manipulating planet simulations
iStock photo/OstapenkoOlena

“With the current emerging technologies, man will soon be able to get to Mars.”

So said the legendary NASA astronaut Captain Scott Kelly at the CSCMP 2016 Conference in Orlando. Kelly holds the record for the longest stay in space – more than 400 days – and has participated in numerous space missions, most notably 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 kilometers away – with guarantees of successfully getting them back.

NASA astronaut Captain Scott Kelly

This is a notion shared by the President Barack Obama, who in declarations made on October 11, claimed that the goal of a mission to Mars could be reached within 15 years. This would be done in collaboration with private space enterprises Boeing and SpaceX, famously owned by Elon Musk.

On October 25, I was invited to give a talk at the Boeing Center for Supply Chain Innovation titled “IT & Global Supply Chain Management Strategy: A Japanese Manufacturing Perspective.” I presented a recent study on the implementation of 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 Gakushuin University. The speaker who preceded me was Kory Mathews, Vice President of Autonomous Systems at Boeing Military Aircraft, who reiterated the impact many of these systems will have on global supply chains and industries, as well as our lives. He added that quite a few of these technologies are not new, although their miniaturization and low cost are, and that their reliability has been amply proven thanks to IoT and AI.

There is a general consensus that we are witnessing the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, an age in which technologies become capable of supporting the visions of enterprise leaders, which in turn drives the expansion of technology. These visionary leaders see the tremendous potential of technological transformation. Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, explored the possibilities in his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“[The Fourth Industrial Revolution] 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,” he says.

But what are these technologies, and what can they do for us, our businesses, and society? How do we connect the dots to reveal the map of the future? It’s no easy task. We’re talking about technologies and disciplines that are considered separate domains of knowledge and skills.

Leonardo Da Vinci would probably have loved this era. Similar to his own age in which the Middle Ages transitioned into the modern age, we are now living to see three great, previously separate worlds collide: the physical, the digital, and the biological. Simply put, 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 understand the world around us. The foremost emerging IoT technologies rely on each other to evolve.

IoT is equivalent to the railway lines during the First Industrial Revolution, which allowed trains to connect cities and people. In the business world, IoT involves connecting industries, businesses, commerce, and clients without human intervention. An IoT strategic approach would be aimed at the experience of the client, at designing new client-centered businesses, products, 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)

If IoT is equivalent to the railways of the First Industrial Revolution, AI is the locomotive steam engines and factories driving society and industry to advance. AI is the engine of machine-based learning, capable of generating new knowledge and instant decisions – in most cases, more reliable decisions than those made by humans.

It has been demonstrated that self-driving vehicles are less prone to accidents than human drivers. Why? Because there are three things AI can do much better than humans: control, optimize, and predict.

In China, it is now possible to receive a preliminary medical diagnosis carried out entirely through AI, with greater-than-average reliability. This AI system has been developed by Baidu, which also develops AI for self-driving cars. A Chinese company with an R&D center in Silicon Valley, Baidu has been classified as the second most intelligent company in the world by the MIT Technology Review. First place is held by Amazon, while third place goes to Illumina, the world’s largest DNA sequencing company, which is developing a test to detect a range of cancers at a cost of less than $1,000 each.

Big Data

The first locomotives needed coal as an energy source. Big data could be the new oil of economic power. AI needs trillions of pieces of old and new data to achieve maximum efficiency. The resulting data banks would be akin to oil wells: valuable strategic reserves.

But data alone is useless. In the same way that oil needs to be refined into petrol, big data needs to be refined into information.

The massive use of personal data could (and does), of course, lead to ethical conflicts, just as overuse of oil leads to pollution. Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft have come together to form a collaborative committee 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 which entities are positioning themselves as the “big oil” companies of the future.

On the other hand, the Chinese government has announced the 2020 implementation of of a system which will help foster a society of honesty and civility prevail – based on the massive capture of its citizens’ big data. A number of European governments are following the same route to prevent tax evasion through the merging of databases. Governments are also taking note of the risks. At the moment, the European Union is putting all possible legal obstacles in the way of Facebook connecting it personal databases to its recent Twitter acquisition.

In the past, our sense of value has been based on financial capital, human capital, reputational capital (brand value), and intellectual property capital. Perhaps we will soon begin to consider information capital, as well.

Intelligent Sensors

Intelligent sensors enable objects and machines to perceive the physical world and to combine it with the digital world to provide information for machine-based decision making. Most IoT-related applications, industrial or otherwise, need intelligent sensors for real-time interactive functioning – what is known as the user interface.

There are many types of sensors. A car, even though it may not be a self-driver, has dozens of sensors that transmit information in real time to manage the vehicle’s smooth operation and safety. By connecting this control center to an IoT platform, we would be able to generate big data, which could be easily handled by AI.

Self-driving vehicles have all their sensors, intelligent or not, connected to an IoT platform that uses inertia sensors and three additional sensors (cameras, radar, and GPS) for the autopilot function. As self-driving vehicles become more popular, we will see today’s increasingly intelligent vehicles mutate towards IoT to provide us with greater performance. We’ll have control from our smartphones, remote voice control, and optimum maintenance services.

The iPhone 7 has 14 dedicated sensors to 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, 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, where they might administer tests, drugs, and even microsurgery.

With so much power literally in the palm of our hands, it’s not so hard to believe that a trip to Mars is just around the corner.

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