1980’s and 90’s became a huge phase of stupefaction for the world. From the discovery of DNA to early computers to moon landings to Star Trek, the world was intoxicated by a sense of wonderment and what might be possible. This time, the world is captivated by powerful technologies, the next big change that seems to be sweeping the industry is the triad of artificial intelligence (IA), internet of things (IoT), and blockchain, all powered by cloud computing.
Individually, these technologies deserve all the attention they are getting as enablers and disruptors, yet the world barely started unlocking the full potential of any one of them. But take them together? Their transformative effect becomes multiplicative, almost demanding that we are envisaging state-of-the-art.
The golden chord: IoT, AI, and blockchain
In history, measurements and collection of data used to be taken by man manually. This was a labour-intensive process and seemed to have huge possibilities of error. In today’s world with cheap sensors and data connectivity, we can gather millions of data points everyday, analyse on them and take appropriate actions depending on the system settings. This has had implications on everything around us; is becoming an intelligent sensor: from factory machines and automobiles to even law enforcement officers.
Artificial intelligence allows machines to learn and reason in ways that is possible only by humans. Combine this with IoT and you have a system that is vastly more interesting than either one by itself. The mountains of data points captured by IoT can be filtered and analysed by artificial intelligence to discover meaningful patterns that would be, at best, difficult for humans to discover. Better yet, the algorithms improve with time.
Blockchain technology, which is useful much more than the basic field of bitcoin can be used to make unalterable, persistent, and searchable records or transactions, contracts and official documents. If we think beyond the realm of humans interacting with each other, and look forward to the new world of autonomous systems interacting with each other, blockchain technology gives us a simple, cost-effective, and permanent record of decisions made and communicated on our behalf.
Combine these together and you can view the new future: a world where data is gathered by multiple systems, analysed by artificial intelligence to take decisions on our behalf, which are then recorded on blockchain as a permanent record of decisions which are made and communicated on our behalf.
The kith and kin of three
Now, let’s stretch a bit, and consider the various applications of this compactly interlaced system as to what these technologies could do together in the near future.
Today, we are just starting to use voice assistants to ask questions and buy stuff on the internet. What if we turned the model around? Consider a future where household IoT sensors determine what we are consuming and whether the item has reached the reorder threshold. Regular grocery items could have a weight sensor attached to it that collects data on the item remaining in our pantry. When the amount of item falls below a reorder limit, the AI reaches out to us and asks us whether we want to reorder the staple. We can confirm the order over voice and the order gets placed, with the whole series of events being recorded via blockchain in case of dispute. In this world, you would never run out of coffee or milk again.
Another potential use case of this would be in case of healthcare wherein doctors can track the health of their patients using wearables that the patients constantly wear. The wearables can track data on the oxygen saturation, blood pressure, pulse rate, etc. and provide the details to the doctor raising alarms in critical situations. AI can also reach out to the patients when their blood pressure, sugar or pulse rate goes above critical level. An IoT application could track the health and activities of the patient, and could watch and react with all interactions being verified and protected via blockchain. The IoT application could also advise the user when reduction in his level of activity might have adverse effects on his health.
Companies like Hakusan are working on a project called myShindo towards creation of multiple seismometers attached to each building in Japan that can be interconnected to analyse the intensity of earthquakes by using real time data via the cloud for advanced analytics. Today if an earthquake hits a city like Tokyo, it takes multiple days or weeks to assess the actual damage to houses and infrastructure. The data gathered could be used to quickly dispatch first responders and to direct emergency resources more effectively than natural resources.
Another potential use case of these technologies could be to increase safety of workers in factories. Manufacturing plants can be plagued with many environment hazards such as high temperature, toxic gases and radiation. IoT sensors could capture any increase in temperature, toxic gases and radiation above permitted levels and raise a trigger. Based on the trigger appropriate actions could be taken by the system to reduce the temperature. Alternatively, in case of toxic gases and radiations, system could automatically trigger a system to take action. Wearables worn by employees could alert the manager when the vital stats of an employee seems to be at a warning level. The manager could give the employee a much needed break. These transactions would be recorded on an immutable blockchain which would serve as a source of audit in case of any unforeseen issues.
Toyota is currently working with MIT’s Media Lab on a product that aims at increasing safety of autonomous vehicles using a blockchain based network. Autonomous vehicles need hundreds of millions of miles of data logged by multiple users to replicate all types of driving scenarios and their respective responses. Sensors on every autonomous vehicle will share data on every trip that an autonomous vehicle takes. This data will then be used to automate the car and include more driving scenarios in its programming. The data would be stored on blockchain and could be used to create new insurance products that are usage based for customers who would prefer that coverage. In case of an accident or unprecedented route redirection, the real time data collected from cars on the route could be used to alert oncoming cars so that the drivers could take an alternate route.
Another current use of blockchain and IoT in automotive industry is being led by Toyota. The company currently has a system set up that tracks thousands of parts that travel through various countries, factories, and suppliers to manufacture a single car. These parts can continue to be tracked even after their installation into car and the tracked data stored on blockchain. This type of data would permit real time decisions to be made regarding the health of vehicle, allowing manufacturer to schedule services and notify respective users when a certain part is recalled. AI could also take independent decision and notify the user when it sees the vehicle needing oil change or a particular part facing unusual wear and tear.
Blockchain based systems could also help in energy and utilities sector. Some companies such as Filament are working on building a network of smart devices that monitor energy grids. In case of any problems with any of the energy grids, AI could suggest effective action items to workers at the affected energy grids. All the data is meanwhile recorded on blockchain to ensure that the recorded and AI generated data is auditable. Blockchain supported IoT networks of household energy grids can also enable peer-to-peer transactions of energy. For example, excess rooftop solar energy obtained on a property could be sold to other users who need it. The IoT sensors could also create alerts when a solar panel reduces its energy output and AI could inform the property owner of the panels facing issues.
Our minds must stretch when we envisage the impact of these three technologies taken together. With the endless possibilities and adventures surrounding artificial intelligence, internet of things and blockchain, the future seems to be emerging out of sci-fi movie. It is hard for us to wrap our heads around this new art of the possible. So much is changing in such a short time-frame. The possibilities are endless and feverishly exciting. All we need to do is dream and think out of the box.
Vaishali Singh is Research Associate, GNLU-Microsoft IPR Chair, Gujarat National Law University.
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