The Future of AI, IoT, VR/AR is Coming Faster Than Ever. Why?

What’s behind the explosion of tech trends that have been with us for decades?

This article originally appeared in Network World on January 25, 2018.

The science behind a lot of today’s hottest technology is actually pretty old.

John McCarthy is considered the father of AI after he coined the phrase in 1955 and then held the first academic conference on the topic the next year.

The term “virtual reality” was first used in the mid-1980s, but the attempts to use electronics to develop simulated environments also reach back to the 1950s.

Then, there’s the Internet of Things. It’s a popular topic now, but it’s been nearly 20 years since the phrase was introduced in 1999. And the first connected thing (a toaster created by John Romkey and Simon Hackett) actually debuted even earlier, in 1990.

It all reminds us there’s often a good-sized gap between when science makes a technology possible and when it becomes commonplace. When it comes to AI, virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) and the IoT, advances in digital have helped bridge that gap more quickly than ever lately. And since these are intersecting technologies, advances in one have boosted the other. So instead of having to wait a few more decades, we’re all getting a chance to watch the fantastic become routine right now.

AI, VR/AR and IoT all have something else in common besides their recently accelerated development– they all have the same set of dependencies: Each requires relatively sophisticated devices, excellent network connectivity and robust cloud infrastructures. And none of it works as well as it should without interconnection.

Advances, big and small

So what are a few conditions in place today that have enabled the development of technologies like AI, VR/AR or the IoT? Briefly, here are few that come to mind.

  • Ubiquitous network connectivity. Of course, the Internet isn’t as ubiquitous as we sometimes assume _ about half the world’s population of 7.6 billion isn’t on it yet. Still, half of it is, and the percentage is growing. The global high-speed network connectivity that digital technologies rely on simply wasn’t possible a few years ago.
  • Massive, elastic, compute-on-demand capabilities. Amazon wasn’t trying to build a huge, on-demand cloud services provider when it took its first step toward Amazon Web Services. It just needed a flexible platform that could present a variety of products at times of varying demand. An infinitely scalable cloud platform seemed to do the trick, and it turned out Amazon could do more with it than sell books. The instant and unprecedented computing power it offers has become the backbone of countless AI, VR/AR and IoT services.
  • Standardized underlying compute infrastructure. When the IoT was in its early days, its components were often extremely specialized and aimed at a particular solution, often in high-margin industries – maybe a network of sensors deployed to monitor equipment for a specific energy company. The IoT couldn’t become a true global network until a standardized global compute infrastructure was developed. Hello, cloud. A homogenous underlying approach allows endless customization at the presentation level and enables innovation by companies that simply could not have afforded access to the scale and computing power widely available today.

All this shows up in big and small ways. Some companies are trying to change transportation with driverless cars, others want to help you track what’s in your fridge when you aren’t available to look yourself. Here a few examples of products and services at the leading edge of some of the most important tech trends.

  • AI: Gartner Research Director Roberta Cozza recently said this: “To remain relevant, technology vendors must integrate AI into every aspect of their devices, or face marginalization.” Several companies seem to agree. Amazon offers numerous products that work with its Alexa virtual assistant, including robovaccuums, light dimmers and mosquito zappers. The Nimbo security robot can patrol specific routes, analyze its surroundings and human activities, collect evidence and notify security personnel when things are amiss. And the Nvidia Xavier is a license-plated sized supercomputer that analyzes data from radar, lidar, cameras and ultrasonic sensors to enable vehicles so autonomous a steering wheel is unneeded.
  • VR: Today’s virtual reality technology is good at immersing you in worlds you experience mainly through sight and sound. But what about touch? The Startup Sense Glove enables users to virtually pick up and feel objects. You can squeeze and toss a ball, or stack blocks. If you clutch a virtual glass jar too tightly, it shatters and the glove vibrates.
  • IoT: Samsung has declared itself all-in on IoT, saying that all its devices will be IoT-ready and intelligent by 2020. Already, it said, one billion connected Samsung devices are in use globally. Its virtual assistant Bixby relies heavily on IoT tech to tell individual members of the family what they might be interested in inside the fridge, based on their eating preferences, and also give them a personalized morning briefing, based on what’s on their schedule, the weather and news that interests them.

 Why interconnection is critical to all of it

Interconnection is private data exchange between businesses, and it is an essential ingredient in all these emerging technologies. That’s because it has several characteristics that companies in these spaces can’t do without

 First, it’s direct, and that’s critical when information is flying around regions or continents. Direct connections are the fastest, the highest-performing and the most secure. Interconnection also enables many-to-many connectivity. These technologies don’t exist without real-time connectivity between a variety of different counterparties. Next, proximity is a priority. Latency is a killer for each of these technologies, and the only way reduce latency is to reduce distance between the players. Finally, interconnection is delivered via globally dispersed exchange points. It’s simple. Clouds, companies, digital ecosystem – they all need to be able to gather close enough to each other and their users to make direct connections that fuel all these technologies.

Without interconnection, companies are stuck backhauling all their data between their users and partners and centralized, corporate data centers. In the other words, the future these technologies promised when they debuted those decades ago would be as distant as ever, instead of right here, right now.

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