Innovative new technologies are creating increasingly sophisticated ways for us to measure and understand the world around us in ways that we never thought possible. Two technologies that are enabling innovators to rethink approaches to solving problems, their business model and entire industries are artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Let us take a brief look into what these technologies are before we understand and look at examples how their convergence is driving transformation.
What is Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
AI is a sub-domain and wide-ranging branch of data science, aimed at developing machines with the intelligence to perform tasks that normally require human intelligence (an equally wide-branching set of tasks). AI is becoming increasingly pervasive, revolutionising many aspects of our lives in areas such as finance, customer service, healthcare and advertising in places that are not always immediately obvious to the user as AI can often provide a seamless experience. A basic summary of how AI works is by a model identifying relationships, patterns and characteristics that exist within a data set and applying those observations to perform a specific task. Examples of AI and its sub-domain machine learning (ML) are becoming increasingly common across a variety of industries, from content and purchase recommendations in online content and shopping, to fraud detection in banking. The ubiquity of software and growth of the internet has resulted in an explosion of data known as the ‘big data problem’ organisations are struggling to manage. In recent years, the capability of AI has led more and more enterprises to explore how AI can be used to help manage this data inundation to solve existing complex problems and tackle emerging ones.
What is the Internet of Things (IoT)?
IoT are types of sensors such as smartphones, smart watches and other types of electrical devices that can remotely collect and transfer data through a network without requiring human interaction. The ‘connected’ nature of IoT allows smart devices to communicate by exchanging data, integrating data from different types of sensors and perform analytics to derive valuable insights. These sensors are used to collect data and measure actions, events and conditions that occur in an environment in a way that has never been possible. IoT can be thought of as a technological extension of our nervous system that connects us to our environment, essentially plugging us into the world around us and collect information on things we know are there but have not been able to measure consistently or effectively in real-time. However, the rise of IoT isn’t without its challenges, as it potentially compounds the big data problem by creating more data than organisations know what to do with or act on.
Today, IoT is in its relative infancy but is already making a considerable impact in areas such as consumer goods, supply chain and manufacturing, even agriculture. One can only imagine the impact of IoT on our lives in 20 years when the types of sensors, the data they collect and the methods of analysing and acting on this data becoming more sophisticated. The most compelling aspect of IoT is that when everything becomes connected with everything else, the possibilities become endless.
This begs the question: when you combine two revolutionary technologies such as AI and IoT, how can they work together to create new possibilities?
Synergy of AI and IoT: The Perfect Combination
If IoT is seen as a technological nervous system connecting us to our environment and enabling extensive and varied collection of data across numerous events and contexts – from heartbeat and blood pressure of humans to wear and tear of machinery - then AI and machine learning is the brain making sense of this influx of stimulation; identifying patterns, relationships and correlations that humans couldn’t detect or interpret at the required speed without intelligent assistance and vast processing power.
Enterprises are increasingly incorporating AI into IoT applications to discover insights that can inform smarter decisions relating to innovating existing or creating new products, services and processes, or even changing entire business models. The intersection of IoT and AI creates profound new opportunities for brands to connect the dots between data in unprecedented ways and use these insights to enhance the value their customer value proposition for B2B and B2C focused sectors in a myriad of ways.
One of the most prominent areas in which the impact of IoT can be seen is in consumer goods and home automation. Smartphone ownership is virtually ubiquitous, but smart devices such as Alexa and Nest are increasingly making their way into our homes in the form of voice assistants, security cameras, lighting and environmental controls, alarms, smart thermostats to help us manage our environment and even better understand our homes and ourselves. For example, smart thermostats can learn to understand our temperature preferences across different times of day and even different rooms, then adjust accordingly. This capability is even being extended to more traditional appliances such as fridges, which can be temperature controlled remotely, create grocery lists, alert users if doors are open, even recommend recipes based on ingredients in the fridge. Most of these tools and applications can all be monitored and controlled via an application, giving us unprecedented insight and control of our homes even when we are not there.
IoT and AI is also influencing our behaviour in our homes through its applications in the energy and water industry. In both these cases, sensors can be deployed across their respective networks to collect data on user consumption, time of day and network performance, which can be used to generate insights into trends in energy usage and to monitor and detect faults across the networks in need of repairs. The benefits are not just for companies though: customers can use these insights to inform conscientious yet practical changes to their consumption behaviour to reduce wasteful energy consumption and bills.
These technologies are even finding their way into the last place you might expect to find them: food. IoT and AI are being used in agriculture to unearth valuable insights regarding the optimal conditions to grow high-quality and high yield produce and crops, monitoring factors such as soil quality, moisture levels, acidity, and temperature and enabling farmers to take smart proactive measures to maximise quality and production. The combination of sensor technology and AI into agriculture may be the key to more sustainable food production and distribution and feeding the planet.
Augmenting Human Capability
So how should these two technology superpowers be combined to solve problems and make our lives better? Well, this question is one that us humans must answer.
One key limitation to the metaphor of AI being akin to a brain making sense of data generated from an IoT nervous system is that artificial intelligence lacks the agency or sentience to understand the real-world context behind data and human goals and objectives. This lack of understanding or reason means that whilst AI has the capability to generate valuable insights through advanced analytics that map patterns in data, it lacks the intelligence to tell us what problems we should be solving, the data we should be collecting, the patterns we should be searching for and why. It simply performs the task it is told to do – a task allocated by humans.
The implication is that AI, by itself, is not the panacea to all our problems and cannot miraculously divine valuable insights without direction. IoT might provide us with the raw material and AI is a tool – albeit a sophisticated one – to process that raw material into something useful, but these entities must be aligned with the user. The person who wields matters. Vision and intent are intrinsic to a successful IoT/AI strategy and sophisticated IoT hardware and AI cannot compensate for the blind implementation of either. Ultimately, the responsibility falls to humans to identify the problem, define the desired outcome, and select or craft the right tool for the task.
The emerging use-cases and potential upsides of combining AI and IoT will cause business leaders to rethink their products, services, operations, business models and the value they can offer customers. Afterall, when everything is connected the possibilities become endless: which necessitates a strong and clear vision to avoid enthusiastically stumbling in the wrong direction.
The rapid rise of IoT and AI in areas such as smart wearables provide a small window of insight into how traditional barriers between products, services and even industries are beginning to blur or be disrupted entirely: nowadays, a watch need not only be a watch, but a healthcare application that tracks sleep, heart rate and can even notify emergency services. The convergence of AI and IoT will inevitably drive new integrations and create new possibilities that will reinvent the world around us and how we interact with it.