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As Dorothy famously said in The Wizard of Oz, there’s no place like home. Home is where we go to rest and recharge. It’s familiar, comfortable, and our own. We take care of our homes by cleaning and maintaining them, and fixing things that break or go wrong.
What if our homes, on top of giving us shelter, could also take care of us in return?
According to Chris Arkenberg, this could be the case in the not-so-distant future. As part of Singularity University’s Experts On Air series, Arkenberg gave a talk called “How the Intelligent Home of The Future Will Care For You.”
Arkenberg is a research and strategy lead at Orange Silicon Valley, and was previously a research fellow at the Deloitte Center for the Edge and a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Future.
Arkenberg told the audience that there’s an evolution going on: homes are going from being smart to being connected, and will ultimately become intelligent.
Intelligent home technologies are just now budding, but broader trends point to huge potential for their growth. We as consumers already expect continuous connectivity wherever we go—what do you mean my phone won’t get reception in the middle of Yosemite? What do you mean the smart TV is down and I can’t stream Game of Thrones?
As connectivity has evolved from a privilege to a basic expectation, Arkenberg said, we’re also starting to have a better sense of what it means to give up our data in exchange for services and conveniences. It’s so easy to click a few buttons on Amazon and have stuff show up at your front door a few days later—never mind that data about your purchases gets recorded and aggregated.
“Right now we have single devices that are connected,” Arkenberg said. “Companies are still trying to show what the true value is and how durable it is beyond the hype.”
Connectivity is the basis of an intelligent home. To take a dumb object and make it smart, you get it online. Belkin’s Wemo, for example, lets users control lights and appliances wirelessly and remotely, and can be paired with Amazon Echo or Google Home for voice-activated control.
Speaking of voice-activated control, Arkenberg pointed out that physical interfaces are evolving, too, to the point that we’re actually getting rid of interfaces entirely, or transitioning to ‘soft’ interfaces like voice or gesture.
Drivers of change
Consumers are open to smart home tech and companies are working to provide it. But what are the drivers making this tech practical and affordable? Arkenberg said there are three big ones:
Computation: Computers have gotten exponentially more powerful over the past few decades. If it wasn’t for processors that could handle massive quantities of information, nothing resembling an Echo or Alexa would even be possible. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are powering these devices, and they hinge on computing power too.
Sensors: “There are more things connected now than there are people on the planet,” Arkenberg said. Market research firm Gartner estimates there are 8.4 billion connected things currently in use. Wherever digital can replace hardware, it’s doing so. Cheaper sensors mean we can connect more things, which can then connect to each other.
Data: “Data is the new oil,” Arkenberg said. “The top companies on the planet are all data-driven giants. If data is your business, though, then you need to keep finding new ways to get more and more data.” Home assistants are essentially data collection systems that sit in your living room and collect data about your life. That data in turn sets up the potential of machine learning.
Colonizing the Living Room
Alexa and Echo can turn lights on and off, and Nest can help you be energy-efficient. But beyond these, what does an intelligent home really look like?
Arkenberg’s vision of an intelligent home uses sensing, data, connectivity, and modeling to manage resource efficiency, security, productivity, and wellness.
Autonomous vehicles provide an interesting comparison: they’re surrounded by sensors that are constantly mapping the world to build dynamic models to understand the change around itself, and thereby predict things. Might we want this to become a model for our homes, too? By making them smart and connecting them, Arkenberg said, they’d become “more biological.”
There are already several products on the market that fit this description. RainMachine uses weather forecasts to adjust home landscape watering schedules. Neurio monitors energy usage, identifies areas where waste is happening, and makes recommendations for improvement.
These are small steps in connecting our homes with knowledge systems and giving them the ability to understand and act on that knowledge.
He sees the homes of the future being equipped with digital ears (in the form of home assistants, sensors, and monitoring devices) and digital eyes (in the form of facial recognition technology and machine vision to recognize who’s in the home). “These systems are increasingly able to interrogate emotions and understand how people are feeling,” he said. “When you push more of this active intelligence into things, the need for us to directly interface with them becomes less relevant.”
Could our homes use these same tools to benefit our health and wellness? FREDsense uses bacteria to create electrochemical sensors that can be applied to home water systems to detect contaminants. If that’s not personal enough for you, get a load of this: ClinicAI can be installed in your toilet bowl to monitor and evaluate your biowaste. What’s the point, you ask? Early detection of colon cancer and other diseases.
What if one day, your toilet’s biowaste analysis system could link up with your fridge, so that when you opened it it would tell you what to eat, and how much, and at what time of day?
Roadblocks to intelligence
“The connected and intelligent home is still a young category trying to establish value, but the technological requirements are now in place,” Arkenberg said. We’re already used to living in a world of ubiquitous computation and connectivity, and we have entrained expectations about things being connected. For the intelligent home to become a widespread reality, its value needs to be established and its challenges overcome.
One of the biggest challenges will be getting used to the idea of continuous surveillance. We’ll get convenience and functionality if we give up our data, but how far are we willing to go? Establishing security and trust is going to be a big challenge moving forward,” Arkenberg said.
There’s also cost and reliability, interoperability and fragmentation of devices, or conversely, what Arkenberg called ‘platform lock-on,’ where you’d end up relying on only one provider’s system and be unable to integrate devices from other brands.
Ultimately, Arkenberg sees homes being able to learn about us, manage our scheduling and transit, watch our moods and our preferences, and optimize our resource footprint while predicting and anticipating change.
“This is the really fascinating provocation of the intelligent home,” Arkenberg said. “And I think we’re going to start to see this play out over the next few years.”
Sounds like a home Dorothy wouldn’t recognize, in Kansas or anywhere else.
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Remember the 1980s movie Brewster’s Millions, in which a minor league baseball pitcher (played by Richard Pryor) must spend $30 million in 30 days to inherit $300 million? Pryor goes on an epic spending spree for a bigger payoff down the road.
One of the world’s biggest public companies is making that film look like a weekend in the Hamptons. Japan’s SoftBank Group, led by its indefatigable CEO Masayoshi Son, is shooting to invest $100 billion over the next five years toward what the company calls the information revolution.
The newly-created SoftBank Vision Fund, with a handful of key investors, appears ready to almost single-handedly hack the technology revolution. Announced only last year, the fund had its first major close in May with $93 billion in committed capital. The rest of the money is expected to be raised this year.
The fund is unprecedented. Data firm CB Insights notes that the SoftBank Vision Fund, if and when it hits the $100 billion mark, will equal the total amount that VC-backed companies received in all of 2016—$100.8 billion across 8,372 deals globally.
The money will go toward both billion-dollar corporations and startups, with a minimum $100 million buy-in. The focus is on core technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics and the Internet of Things.
Aside from being Japan’s richest man, Son is also a futurist who has predicted the singularity, the moment in time when machines will become smarter than humans and technology will progress exponentially. Son pegs the date as 2047. He appears to be hedging that bet in the biggest way possible.
Show Me the Money
Ostensibly a telecommunications company, SoftBank Group was founded in 1981 and started investing in internet technologies by the mid-1990s. Son infamously lost about $70 billion of his own fortune after the dot-com bubble burst around 2001. The company itself has a market cap of nearly $90 billion today, about half of where it was during the heydays of the internet boom.
The ups and downs did nothing to slake the company’s thirst for technology. It has made nine acquisitions and more than 130 investments since 1995. In 2017 alone, SoftBank has poured billions into nearly 30 companies and acquired three others. Some of those investments are being transferred to the massive SoftBank Vision Fund.
SoftBank is not going it alone with the new fund. More than half of the money—$60 billion—comes via the Middle East through Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund ($45 billion) and Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Investment Company ($15 billion). Other players at the table include Apple, Qualcomm, Sharp, Foxconn, and Oracle.
During a company conference in August, Son notes the SoftBank Vision Fund is not just about making money. “We don’t just want to be an investor just for the money game,” he says through a translator. “We want to make the information revolution. To do the information revolution, you can’t do it by yourself; you need a lot of synergy.”
Off to the Races
The fund has wasted little time creating that synergy. In July, its first official investment, not surprisingly, went to a company that specializes in artificial intelligence for robots—Brain Corp. The San Diego-based startup uses AI to turn manual machines into self-driving robots that navigate their environments autonomously. The first commercial application appears to be a really smart commercial-grade version that crosses a Roomba and Zamboni.
A second investment in July was a bit more surprising. SoftBank and its fund partners led a $200 million mega-round for Plenty, an agricultural tech company that promises to reshape farming by going vertical. Using IoT sensors and machine learning, Plenty claims its urban vertical farms can produce 350 times more vegetables than a conventional farm using 1 percent of the water.
The spending spree continued into August.
The SoftBank Vision Fund led a $1.1 billion investment into a little-known biotechnology company called Roivant Sciences that goes dumpster diving for abandoned drugs and then creates subsidiaries around each therapy. For example, Axovant Sciences is devoted to neurology while Urovant focuses on urology. TechCrunch reports that Roivant is also creating a tech-focused subsidiary, called Datavant, that will use AI for drug discovery and other healthcare initiatives, such as designing clinical trials.
The AI angle may partly explain SoftBank’s interest in backing the biggest private placement in healthcare to date.
Also in August, SoftBank Vision Fund led a mix of $2.5 billion in primary and secondary capital investments into India’s largest private company in what was touted as the largest single investment in a private Indian company. Flipkart is an e-commerce company in the mold of Amazon.
The fund tacked on a $250 million investment round in August to Kabbage, an Atlanta-based startup in the alt-lending sector for small businesses. It ended big with a $4.4 billion investment into a co-working company called WeWork.
Betterment of Humanity
And those investments only include companies that SoftBank Vision Fund has backed directly.
SoftBank the company will offer—or has already turned over—previous investments to the Vision Fund in more than a half-dozen companies. Those assets include its shares in Nvidia, which produces chips for AI applications, and its first serious foray into autonomous driving with Nauto, a California startup that uses AI and high-tech cameras to retrofit vehicles to improve driving safety. The more miles the AI logs, the more it learns about safe and unsafe driving behaviors.
Other recent acquisitions, such as Boston Dynamics, a well-known US robotics company owned briefly by Google’s parent company Alphabet, will remain under the SoftBank Group umbrella for now.
This spending spree begs the question: What is the overall vision behind the SoftBank’s relentless pursuit of technology companies? A spokesperson for SoftBank told Singularity Hub that the “common thread among all of these companies is that they are creating the foundational platforms for the next stage of the information revolution.All of the companies, he adds, share SoftBank’s criteria of working toward “the betterment of humanity.”
While the SoftBank portfolio is diverse, from agtech to fintech to biotech, it’s obvious that SoftBank is betting on technologies that will connect the world in new and amazing ways. For instance, it wrote a $1 billion check last year in support of OneWeb, which aims to launch 900 satellites to bring internet to everyone on the planet. (It will also be turned over to the SoftBank Vision Fund.)
SoftBank also led a half-billion equity investment round earlier this year in a UK company called Improbable, which employs cloud-based distributed computing to create virtual worlds for gaming. The next step for the company is massive simulations of the real world that supports simultaneous users who can experience the same environment together(and another candidate for the SoftBank Vision Fund.)
Even something as seemingly low-tech as WeWork, which provides a desk or office in locations around the world, points toward a more connected planet.
In the end, the singularity is about bringing humanity together through technology. No one said it would be easy—or cheap.
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How many cyborgs did you see during your morning commute today? I would guess at least five. Did they make you nervous? Probably not; you likely didn’t even realize they were there.
In a presentation titled “Biohacking and the Connected Body” at Singularity University Global Summit, Hannes Sjoblad informed the audience that we’re already living in the age of cyborgs. Sjoblad is co-founder of the Sweden-based biohacker network Bionyfiken, a chartered non-profit that unites DIY-biologists, hackers, makers, body modification artists and health and performance devotees to explore human-machine integration.
Sjoblad said the cyborgs we see today don’t look like Hollywood prototypes; they’re regular people who have integrated technology into their bodies to improve or monitor some aspect of their health. Sjoblad defined biohacking as applying hacker ethic to biological systems. Some biohackers experiment with their biology with the goal of taking the human body’s experience beyond what nature intended.
Smart insulin monitoring systems, pacemakers, bionic eyes, and Cochlear implants are all examples of biohacking, according to Sjoblad. He told the audience, “We live in a time where, thanks to technology, we can make the deaf hear, the blind see, and the lame walk.” He is convinced that while biohacking could conceivably end up having Brave New World-like dystopian consequences, it can also be leveraged to improve and enhance our quality of life in multiple ways.
The field where biohacking can make the most positive impact is health. In addition to pacemakers and insulin monitors, several new technologies are being developed with the goal of improving our health and simplifying access to information about our bodies.
Ingestibles are a type of smart pill that use wireless technology to monitor internal reactions to medications, helping doctors determine optimum dosage levels and tailor treatments to different people. Your body doesn’t absorb or process medication exactly as your neighbor’s does, so shouldn’t you each have a treatment that works best with your unique system? Colonoscopies and endoscopies could one day be replaced by miniature pill-shaped video cameras that would collect and transmit images as they travel through the digestive tract.
Singularity University Global Summit is the culmination of the Exponential Conference Series and the definitive place to witness converging exponential technologies and understand how they’ll impact the world.
Security is another area where biohacking could be beneficial. One example Sjoblad gave was personalization of weapons: an invader in your house couldn’t fire your gun because it will have been matched to your fingerprint or synced with your body so that it only responds to you.
Biohacking can also simplify everyday tasks. In an impressive example of walking the walk rather than just talking the talk, Sjoblad had an NFC chip implanted in his hand. The chip contains data from everything he used to have to carry around in his pockets: credit and bank card information, key cards to enter his office building and gym, business cards, and frequent shopper loyalty cards. When he’s in line for a morning coffee or rushing to get to the office on time, he doesn’t have to root around in his pockets or bag to find the right card or key; he just waves his hand in front of a sensor and he’s good to go.
Evolved from radio frequency identification (RFID)—an old and widely distributed technology—NFC chips are activated by another chip, and small amounts of data can be transferred back and forth. No wireless connection is necessary. Sjoblad sees his NFC implant as a personal key to the Internet of Things, a simple way for him to talk to the smart, connected devices around him.
Sjoblad isn’t the only person who feels a need for connection.
When British science writer Frank Swain realized he was going to go deaf, he decided to hack his hearing to be able to hear Wi-Fi. Swain developed software that tunes into wireless communication fields and uses an inbuilt Wi-Fi sensor to pick up router name, encryption modes and distance from the device. This data is translated into an audio stream where distant signals click or pop, and strong signals sound their network ID in a looped melody. Swain hears it all through an upgraded hearing aid.
Global datastreams can also become sensory experiences. Spanish artist Moon Ribas developed and implanted a chip in her elbow that is connected to the global monitoring system for seismographic sensors; each time there’s an earthquake, she feels it through vibrations in her arm.
You can feel connected to our planet, too: North Sense makes a “standalone artificial sensory organ” that connects to your body and vibrates whenever you’re facing north. It’s a built-in compass; you’ll never get lost again.
Biohacking applications are likely to proliferate in the coming years, some of them more useful than others. But there are serious ethical questions that can’t be ignored during development and use of this technology. To what extent is it wise to tamper with nature, and who gets to decide?
Most of us are probably ok with waiting in line an extra 10 minutes or occasionally having to pull up a maps app on our phone if it means we don’t need to implant computer chips into our forearms. If it’s frightening to think of criminals stealing our wallets, imagine them cutting a chunk of our skin out to have instant access to and control over our personal data. The physical invasiveness and potential for something to go wrong seems to far outweigh the benefits the average person could derive from this technology.
But that may not always be the case. It’s worth noting the miniaturization of technology continues at a quick rate, and the smaller things get, the less invasive (and hopefully more useful) they’ll be. Even today, there are people already sensibly benefiting from biohacking. If you look closely enough, you’ll spot at least a couple cyborgs on your commute tomorrow morning.
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In line with current requirements in this age of digital manufacturing, the scientists from Stuttgart are presenting an intelligent interplay of different exhibits at the AUTOMATICA in Munich from 21st till 24th June 2016. Covering the fields of man at the workplace, products and automation, as well as IT infrastructure and networking, the exhibits demonstrate the added value offered by a production plant geared towards Industrie 4.0.
At the Fraunhofer IPA booth, the four cornerstones of Industrie 4.0 can be experienced in various ways within the overall context of a digital production: a wide range of cyberphysical systems, a participatory platform, the Internet of things and services, and also a portal with intuitive man-machine interfaces for interacting with the manufacturing system. With the aid of exhibits interacting intelligently with the cloud, visitors can comprehend the solutions offered by the research institute for various segments of the value chain. These range from singularization, though (partially-)automated assembly processes and workpiece transportation, right up to networking components with the IT infrastructure. The services are not only relevant to users and decision-makers in manufacturing enterprises but also to their suppliers: for planning, operating and optimizing production plants, as well as developing innovative industrial components, machines and systems.
Source: Fraunhofer IPA, photo: Rainer Bez
Focus on the federative platform »Virtual Fort Knox«
Ever since 2012, Fraunhofer IPA has been working together with medium-sized enterprises on an open platform for manufacturing companies called »Virtual Fort Knox«. Under the motto »manufacturing-IT-as-a-service«, various applications (services) can make production data on the platform usable by any end-device. Joachim Seidelmann, head of DigiTools at Fraunhofer IPA, formulated the declared goal as follows. »On the one hand, we want to implement Industrie 4.0 concepts that enable users to increase their production efficiency. On the other hand, together with our industrial customers, we want to answer the question: which digital solutions can be integrated meaningfully into my product or production plant in order to develop new business models?«
At the AUTOMATICA, »Virtual Fort Knox« plays a key role: various demonstrators are linked via the platform. As with a real production plant, a wide range of near real-time status and process data is collected in the system for direct processing. The huge advantage, in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises, is that users can access the information from applications via an output medium of their choice. This does away with the need to procure and maintain a suitable IT environment. Furthermore, the user is billed for the use of the software and hardware on a »pay-as-you-go« basis, thus avoiding fixed costs.
Multiple benefits from the cloud for robotics
The basic technical requirement for an Industrie 4.0 environment is that all equipment with integrated sensors and controllers has to be networked as a cyber-physical system (CPS). A typical example of a CPS is robot systems, such as the bin-picking IPA demonstrator on show at the booth. The manufacturer-independent software bp3™ enables the robot to locate objects rapidly and reliably and plan trajectories for numerous workpieces. A further exhibit presents the advantages of a software package that can be used in conjunction with nearly all types and makes of robot to perform numerous assembly tasks. For the first time, complex tasks that were previously carried out manually, such as assembling switching cabinets, can now be taught intuitively by non-experts and thus be automated cost-effectively.
Through their connection to the cloud architecture, the potential of both software solutions is extended: thanks to the central data pool containing information on workpieces or program modules for direct implementation – so-called skills – robot systems can be put into operation and maintained more efficiently than in the past, components replaced easier and all processes traced and controlled centrally. This not only makes robot systems more adaptable but also significantly speeds up retrofitting to accommodate new product variants. Via a range of services, the cloud also offers new software functions. Similarly, locally-optimized processes can be played back to the cloud, thus enabling all networked robot systems to benefit from once-only program changes.
Source: Fraunhofer IPA, photo: Rainer BezFor flexible transport solutions, the IPA experts have developed »Cloud Navigation«. The advantage of this information is demonstrated by example at the booth with the aid of two mobile, self-navigating systems. Since both automated guided vehicles (AGVs), or multiple AGVs in an industrial context, supply their locally-acquired data to a central point, the entire fleet benefits from more accurate localization and more efficient pathplanning. The AGVs could then act as »lean clients«, i.e. because computer-intensive navigation algorithms could be outsourced to the cloud server, they would require less hardware but would still retain a high degree of navigation intelligence. External sensors, e.g. from the manufacturing environment, could be integrated, as well as navigation functions provided in the form of services.
Controlling and optimizing process
A further key element of Industrie 4.0 is the continuous monitoring of all process steps. This is achieved with »Smart System Optimization« developed at Fraunhofer IPA, which can be implemented without the need for expert IT knowledge. The mobile system collects and automatically analyzes near real-time component and process data using intelligent cameras, generally installed singly at each production station. The system not only detects process aberrations and their cause but also identifies possible losses or bottlenecks. In areas where »Smart System Optimization« is utilized, companies can increase their efficiency by more than ten percent. Moreover, with the intelligent workpiece carrier »smartWT«, single workpieces can also contribute towards process monitoring. Integrated sensors constantly gather logistics and process data relevant to quality and transmit the information wirelessly to the cloud. The user has access to current data at all times and can intervene as required, thus improving production quality and throughput.
As far as the IT infrastructure is concerned, Fraunhofer IPA also has a solution tailored to the demands of an adaptable production plant: with the software »Sense&Act«, companies can devise individual rules to network production equipment. Modifications to the IT, as well as extensions and new interfaces, can be realized at little effort. The software uses sensor data to monitor production, for example to detect system errors. Under certain circumstances, it initiates specific action, such as notifying the user or implementing a measure on the robotic system. Sensors and actuators are swiftly regulated via an intuitive user interface, or shared throughout the company and evaluated.
Relieving the burden on humans and analyzing data usefully
Even in Industrie 4.0 environments, the close involvement of man and his abilities in production brings significant advantages. How this can be achieved, even in the case of burdensome tasks and in view of the demographic change, is demonstrated by the first work exoskeleton that is capable of aiding the worker with overhead tasks. The assembly workplace is linked to the IT infrastructure and adapts automatically to the worker’s individual body measurements as well as the assembly process required. This reduces set-up times and relieves the strain off the worker. Additionally, a workplace analysis developed at Fraunhofer IPA quantifies how effectively the solution reduces the employee workload and optimizes production processes.
All the exhibits in the Industrie 4.0 environment have one thing in common in that they continuously collect information in the sense of »Smart Data«, which can then be used to optimize production. Visitors to the booth can see for themselves how the IPA experts visualize and analyze the sensor and status data acquired from an exhibit to advantage. The information gained from intelligent data analyses also represent approaches for new business models based on usage data, such as service intervals tailored to individual requirements or adaptions to product portfolios to suit customer needs.
Source: Fraunhofer IPA, photo: Rainer Bez
Basic research on Industrie 4.0 with TRUMPF
That theory alone is not enough is demonstrated by a cooperation initiative with TRUMPF: in the summer of 2015, the Ditzingen-based company – one of the world’s leading manufacturers of machine tools for flexible sheet metal processing and industrial lasers – entered into a five-year strategic cooperation with Fraunhofer IPA. The aim of the cooperation is to anchor knowledge from current research on Industrie 4.0 in sheet metal processing. In the so-called »flexible sheet metal processing lab«, workers from TRUMPF and Fraunhofer IPA are working together on innovative solutions for production technologies of tomorrow. In initial starter projects, the areas of »intralogistics«, »service-oriented machines« and »autonomous production« are being handled. The aim is to further develop the contents of the cooperation as it progresses with new project topics being regularly added.
Ulrich Schneider, project manager at Fraunhofer IPA, will be reporting on the joint cooperation scheme during AUTOMATICA on 24th June at 11 a.m. Together with Dr. Martin Landherr, he will be presenting the project under the title »Think in business models, work in cooperations – cooperation with TRUMPF as a practical example of the Application Center Industrie 4.0«. He will also talk about the Application Center Industrie 4.0, which is located at the Fraunhofer Institute Center. This is a test environment for industrial research that unites cyber-physical systems with a real manufacturing environment.
Source: Fraunhofer IPA, photo: Rainer Bez
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