Wedding Invite: Oven marries Music Pod

By : |September 26, 2013 0

INDIA: EVER wondered what if toys could talk to each other? A doll babbling her tea-party adventures to a train resting on make-shift tracks, which then in turn, whistles some anecdotes back to a Teddy bear lying all pampered in the corner of a kid’s room or under the soft, impish ruins at a play school? If that happens, there can be more fun lurking in that prospect than some naive conversations.

Kids may grow up and so do toys. In that five- to six-feet-stretched-world, this very idea pops up to seem more of a necessity than a fantasy.

That’s why hearing about a wearable watch that is suddenly smart enough to understand what the Smartphone says, does not bewilder many. Or for that matter, watching spectacles acute enough to capture and interact with the new tech-wired Matrix we live in. Anyone flaunting how his bike is busy chatting with his AC back home is not considered insane but someone who commands respect and awe. It’s a world where the tale of Transformers ceases to be a fable of fiction and a Justin Timberlake swiping hours as currency to his girlfriend’s elbow looks as believable and matter-of-fact as the plastic money we pocket.

Anything is possible, and out of the realm of amusement parks, these days.

Gartner calls this new eon by the name ‘Internet of Things’.

Its analysts rightly believe that the relationship is being redefined through emerging technologies, narrowing the divide between humans and machines. In fact, the Gartner’s 2013 Hype Cycle Special Report mentions future direction of more than 2,000 technologies, grouped into 98 areas ranging from social analytics, embedded software and systems, consumer market research, open banking, to banking operations innovation, and information and communication technology (ICT) in Africa.

In other words, thingamajig like a self-driving car is an exciting present-tense and soon more customers can dream of autonomous vehicles as the possibility gets closer.

Or closer home, we can look at the Mahindra telematic app for the E2O car.

The app seems to provide the user with a vast array of features comprising of locking and unlocking your car, switching on the AC or heater of the car, planning your trips etc from the comfort of your mobile phone. This relationship between the use of telecommunications and informatics refers to telematics and Moonraft, the company crafted the app, says it has successfully engineered an app which uses this form of technology.

Digging the phenomenon deeply in a chat with CIOL, Hung LeHong, research vice president at Gartner illustrates how at the industry level, vehicles that drive on their own, for example, can help immensely in areas like mining sector or auto tracks. “Many answers are jumping out as we start to think of what is possible now. Garbage bins, parking meters, think of how smart and connected anything can soon turn into.”

And all this, is by no means, all talk. Commenting on what is hyped and what is real, LeHong says that while to a certain extent Internet of Things, 3D Printing or NLQA (natural-language question and answering), will stay on the hype cycle for a couple of years, things like virtual assistants, at an individual level, are already becoming non-hyped in a year’s time.

His report incidentally, talked of a future in which machines and computers replace humans, stressing at three trends here: emerging technologies are augmenting humans with technology – for example, an employee with a wearable computing device; machines replacing humans – say, a cognitive virtual assistant acting as an automated customer representative; and humans and machines working alongside each other – imagine a mobile robot working with a warehouse employee to move many boxes.

The evolution is working both the ways, by the way.

LeHong outlined how machines are becoming better at understanding humans and the environment – for example, recognizing the emotion in a person’s voice – and humans are becoming better at understanding machines – through the Internet of things. At the same time, machines and humans are getting smarter by working together.”

In views from other corners in the industry however, skepticism runs parallel to hope.

Sometime in the future machines may evolve to match or exceed human aptitude to solve logical problems, understand patterns and respond adequately. But it has a long way to catch up with human ability to imagine, as Sreekumar Paramu who is the Chief Design Officer & CO-Founder of Moonraft Innovation Labs, Bangalore, looks at it.
“We believe that it is our ability to imagine which drove the development of human civilization, much more than our ability to solve logical problems or understand patterns. Decoding imagination using algorithms has a long way to go.”

All said, M2M can cease to be a castle in the air. If machines can replace humans in areas like dangerous work, simpler yet expensive-to-perform tasks and repetitive tasks; why not?

The main benefit to having machines replace humans is improved productivity, less danger to humans and sometimes better quality work or responses, as Gartner’s report notes well.

So much has changed in this story that ‘a human versus machines’ is not a binary decision any more. What is fascinating to absorb here is that there are times when machines working alongside humans is a better choice. A new generation of robots is being built to work alongside humans. When machines work alongside humans, there also transpires an ability to access the best of both worlds (that is, productivity and speed from machines, emotional intelligence and the ability to handle the unknown from humans). Think of autonomous vehicles, mobile robots, NLQA, and virtual assistants; and we know that the tide has started.

Project Glass is what LeHong cites as he attempts to establish that many concepts can change visibility and public perceptions to a large degree. “Consumers have often shown awkwardness and uneasiness when it comes to raising their phone to an object. Glass makes it lot more inconspicuous and easy. Or take Google Now, and see how it proactively suggests so many things with one look at the calendar. It is helping to set the runway for Glass. Slowly the acceptance of unprompted information is improving and will serve a building block for the future.”

3D printing is another marvel which is not on the back burner anymore. Wearable technology too will get into the fitness segment increasingly. A gadget can wake up a group on time and do so much more. We will see more of these accessories in our wardrobe and equipments, if LeHong smells it right.

If the last mile of human-context is covered, the story becomes all the more life-like and thrilling. Machines and systems can only benefit from a better understanding of human context, humans and human emotion and with that simple context-aware interactions follow. Think of display of an operational report for the location closest to the user; or a better grasp of consumer sentiment for a new product line by analyzing Facebook postings; or delivering a complex dialogue with customer with panache.
Areas like bioacoustic sensing, smart dust, quantified self, brain computer interface, affective computing, biochips, 3D scanners, NLQA, content analytics, mobile health monitoring, gesture control, activity streams, biometric authentication methods, location intelligence and speech recognition.; have already started depicting these capabilities as Gartner gleans it.
NLQA technology, for instance, can improve a virtual customer service representative. NLQA can also be used by doctors to research huge amounts of medical journals and clinical tests to help diagnose an ailment or choose a suitable treatment plan.

Not-so-sunny side up

Not bad. Who wouldn’t want this cloud-and-cuckoo land where the impending footsteps of a boss like Miranda Meryl Priestly are announced well in advance to her many scared-as-mice employees as soon as her car swerves into the building. Or who would shrug a morning where hitting the snooze button on your alarm also alerts your coffee machine to be ready with the perfect brew in so-many-minutes!

At the same time there is the classic Frankenstein effect fear that skulks around. What if a small glitch leads to a big accident while the car is warning the geyser that the master has left office and arriving home? Or if someone hacks into the toaster to usurp files from a laptop? Not impossible huh?

When machines get the capability to imagine, I’ll be a worried man. Not sure if that will happen anytime soon, Paramu admits.

As for LeHong, when we think of an autonomous vehicle, then certainly the idea of something going wrong or someone hacking it is worth the worry.

But overall, the industry is moving into an acceptance mode. “May be, we will lesser accidents, only bigger ones. There is an increased focus in the industry for such technologies to work with robots. Robotics too is still behind the cage and not in and around humans. That too however is crossing the Frankenstein fear,” he feels.

N Chandra, spokesperson for LSI India confesses that he is still figuring out the M2M hype as an individual but also perceives the business end of it to be at an inflection point of sorts.

That should not let us forget the good old GIGO principle, as he aptly offers here. A machine is after all a machine so a ‘junk-in, junk-out’ scenario is not alien to be ready for. “Humans can make predictions based on the input which can, in all possibility, go wrong if something malfunctions or someone keys in something askew.”

Not to forget the concern on how this machine-imperialism increasingly engulfs the world the way we have been running it and make us dumber and send us on a back foot along the evolution curve.

Pervasive computing has definitely resulted in a gradual re-wiring of human brains over the past 10~20 years. But Paramu wouldn’t call it dumb. He avers how our interactions with our immediate environment have changed significantly. More so, as connectivity, processing power, access to any information, anywhere et al is the norm, unlike 10 years ago.

“Our generation got caught-up in this transformation. We were awed by the rapid entry of computers, internet, devices, gaming consoles, Google etc in our lives. We played with it, took time to internalize it, and explored ways to make use of it in our daily lives. We lived on a cusp – between a physical newspaper and Google Now.” He reminds.

But stressing that the new generation is quite different; he adds that they are smarter. “It is hard to impress them with a gesture based interaction or a quick loading page. For them inherent strength of technology is given, while they focus on making their imagination a reality. Wiring of our brain has changed for sure, freeing us up from repetitive, mundane, laborious tasks, while leaving us free to imagine unlimited possibilities.”

Are we there already?

There is still that big, hard-to-shrug-off role of ecosystem and conducive applications or friendly-enough standards to make this fairy tale of M2M really spin on the ground.

Also, when we say ‘Internet of Things’, the word ‘bandwidth’ surely glares sharp. Thinking of India, in particular, what is crucial before we daydream of M2M, is to confront some infrastructure questions first.

As to ecosystem and compatibility, they cannot warrant success or failure of a solution, Paramu contends. If the need is real, ecosystem and compatibility have no choice, but to follow. “Our learning is- focus on user needs, and their experience – the rest will follow.”

“If you look around the world and then at India, bandwidth is not too big a problem now, at least on the commercial side or in supply sense,” reasons Sunanda Das, MD for India at Pacnet, a provider of integrated and full-service network and data solutions to the Enterprise, and Carrier customer segments in the Asia Pacific region. He rather urges for content to come forward and lead the way on how we use Internet. There should be no problem on computing power areas, as he perceives.

Kaip Sridhar, Managing Director, RIPL (Ricoh Innovations Pvt Ltd.) though offers a slightly different degree of confidence specially when words like ‘Augmented Reality (AR)’ are uttered. “There are different kinds of realities. Eventually, we may see blending of office workers and consumers in terms of locations. The way and ‘where’ we work will change. True mobility is lacking now. A lot of 3D effort is also required and so is a better mobile information gateway as we move ahead. Eventually it will have to boil down to being connected all the time, all the way.”

But the ‘Transformer’ age may happen, Paramu feels, just like how GPS enabled cars or cellular phones became reality from James Bond movies of 70’s. “But is the transformer story exciting enough?” he certainly has some apprehensions.

I believe future belongs to simplicity. This is because, when we started our digital journey (90’s) average attention span was a lot more, while choices were few. Now it has come around the other way. Today attention span is a lot less, while we are spoilt with choices. Simple solutions will get attention and adoption, while complex ones will be non-starters. But arriving at simplicity poses some of the biggest challenges from the design and technology perspective. We, in Moonraft, believe that being in the business of simplifying the world is a promising and exciting place to be.”

Meanwhile, the post-it note for enterprises is simple too. Technologies make it possible to augment human performance in physical, emotional and cognitive areas. The main benefit to enterprises in augmenting humans with technology is to create a more capable workforce, as the Gartner report advises.

So, if all employees had access to wearable technology that could answer any product or service question or pull up any enterprise data at will; the ability to improve productivity, sell better or serve customer better will increase significantly. Enterprises interested in these technologies should look to bioacoustic sensing, quantified self, 3D bioprinting, brain-computer interface, human augmentation, speech-to-speech translation, neurobusiness, wearable user interfaces, augmented reality and gesture control.

Enterprises should then start looking to some technologies for sources of innovation on how machines can take over human tasks: volumetric and holographic displays, autonomous vehicles, mobile robots and virtual assistants.

In fact, Darin Bartik, Executive Director of Product Management for Dell Software’s Information Management Group attributes the entire buzz around Big Data to M2M. Imagine cars on toll booths with license plate sensors. “This gives instant ability to read who and how many are going where and this opens so many doors to studying consumer behavior for instance. We can even think of predicting the purchase behavior of the driver some day. It can help governments understanding their citizens better. The point is that the technology power we have today is great and so much is indeed possible. It will be exciting to see companies push their limits now.” He hopes.

Hope seems to have crossed many a thresholds the way decibel-levels around M2M are rising. Looks like the ‘what-if’ about toys talking to each other would be deleted any time soon.

But wait, thinking of Toy Stories, it suddenly occurs that even if humans concocted (or discovered) it later, weren’t the toys talking to each other all the time behind our backs, and popping out of their closets as soon as the kids went to sleep?

Isn’t it possible that all the machines around us have been up to the same mischief too? May be your phone is already gossiping with your microwave right this moment?

Turn around.

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