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Speed and Scope of IoT Development Leaving Basic Issues Unresolved

The Internet of Things had as many critics as it did champions at the IoT Asia event, with some seeing it as ushering in the dawn of digital ultra-convenience, while others saw it as the gateway to the ultimate subsumption of humanity.

Photo: The Internet of Things: Intimately connecting your toaster, your toothbrush and your fridge. (Shutterstock.com)
The Internet of Things: Intimately connecting your toaster, your toothbrush and your fridge.
Photo: The Internet of Things: Intimately connecting your toaster, your toothbrush and your fridge. (Shutterstock.com)
The Internet of Things: Intimately connecting your toaster, your toothbrush and your fridge.

Listening to the delegates at IoT Asia 2019, it was impossible not to be impressed and somewhat overawed by the sheer speed and scale of the growth the IoT industry expects to see in the coming years. Reeling off the numbers to illustrate just how big the boom in IoT will be, Paul Jentzsch, Head of Business Development at Slock.it, a German blockchain solutions company, said: "By 2025, there will be more than 75 billion IoT devices globally. The economic impact of IoT in 2025 is expected to reach €6 trillion or about US$6.75 trillion."

This explosion in the use and value of IoT is being driven by the happy convergence of a number of factors, including falling costs, rapidly expanding connectivity and major advances in edge computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who heads up the country's Smart Nation Initiative, highlighted the way these factors are coming together to form a virtuous circle, saying: "All these trends are not occurring in isolation, but in fact, they are exponentially converging and feeding on one another."

Numerous Challenges

This IoT boom, though, is now turning up as many problems as solutions, a situation many of the attendees at the conference were keen to address. For his part, Professor Simon Chesterton, Dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, highlighted the difficulties surrounding the management of AI, saying: "Should we regulate AI? With AI, we face three challenges. The first is speed. In 2010, in 30 minutes the Dow Jones lost a trillion dollars due to algorithms. The second is autonomy – how do we manage autonomous vehicles? And third is opacity – the difficulty of understanding how decisions are made by AI systems.

"Ultimately, there are three possible responses, the first of which is to do nothing, something that is not really feasible given the challenges. Alternatively, we could introduce laws to control AI development. We could even ban AI, something that's already under consideration with regard to autonomous weapons. The third option is to develop a framework to govern the ethical use of AI. Under this framework, AI systems would be human-centric, with all their decisions explainable, transparent and fair."

Others in attendance were more concerned as to how IoT transactions will be paid for in the future. Highlighting the difficulties of developing a new payment system, Slock.it's Paul Jentzsch said: "The variety of connections is set to increase – from human to machine, machine to machine, and even machine to human, with the latter instance occurring when a machine autonomously decides that it requires human intervention or maintenance. All these interactions require secure payments, but machines don't have wallets or bank accounts. Security is also big concern, as is the fact that IoT systems lack interoperability.

Jentzsch, perhaps not too surprisingly, believes his company has found the answer – Incubed, a system that allows clients to conduct financial transactions easily and securely via blockchain technology. Outlining the product's advantages, he said: "The solution to the problem is to combine blockchain with IoT. Incubed provides the high bandwidth and stable connectivity required, quick and constant syncing of data, low requirements for computational and memory resources, a high level of security and no single point of failure."

IoT As-a-Service

Another widely discussed issue at the conference was the obstacles that still needed to be overcome in the field of data-sharing. Outlining the problem, Eric Yeo, Assistant Director of Business Development at SP Telecom, a Singapore-based telco, said: "A typical IoT infrastructure comprises four blocks – sensor devices, connectivity, cloud management and actionable analytics. Typically, these elements cannot be shared, largely on account of their proprietary development.

"The best way of solving this may be via connectivity and the cloud, as well as via the wider adoption of IoT as-a-service [IoTaaS]. This allows companies with IoT hardware to cease using their own servers and to migrate to an ecosystem of ready-made apps in order to connect with their clients.

Photo: Artificial intelligence: Genuine threat? (Shutterstock.com)
Artificial intelligence: Genuine threat?
Photo: Artificial intelligence: Genuine threat? (Shutterstock.com)
Artificial intelligence: Genuine threat?
Photo: Smart cities: Towns with a higher IQ than you. (Shutterstock.com)
Smart cities: Towns with a higher IQ than you.
Photo: Smart cities: Towns with a higher IQ than you. (Shutterstock.com)
Smart cities: Towns with a higher IQ than you.

"Essentially, IoTaaS addresses five issues – cost, time to implement, security, operational experience and unclear return on investment [ROI]. Research by Gartner, a US analytics company, indicates that most IoT implementations take twice as long as originally anticipated. From experience, the hold-up is always the paperwork, such as getting permission for the deployment of sensors. Typically, there is a lot to learn in each initial deployment. Due to this delay alone, the ROI is then already uncertain. To reduce this uncertainty and speed up IoT implementation, companies should consider focusing on what kind of sensors they want and on the analytics, then deploying IoTaaS."

Real-time Data Flow

The conference, however, didn't just highlight the downside of IoT development, it also found plenty of time to focus on its many advantages. One particularly upbeat note was struck by Fanny See, Chief Operating Officer and Co-founder of Detrack Systems, a Singapore-based logistics business.

Explaining how IoT is now being used to tackle last-mile delivery problems, she said: "Delivering the last leg of the supply chain is costly, comprising 28% of the total cost of moving goods. The logistics industry is also fragmented, with typically as many as three vendors involved in any one delivery – few of whom share data. With the growth in e-commerce, the demands and the problems are increasing. Customer expectations are also going up in terms of free delivery and free returns. Expanding the delivery fleet and systems isn't the solution and might actually just complicate things still further.

"The real way forward requires a multi-pronged approach – static route planning, which plans and optimises stops into efficient runs; real-time data flow, including vehicle tracking, delivery times for instant updates and dynamic live routing; and matching the best placed driver to any particular delivery or collection. Our solution, ElasticRoute, uses an algorithm to plan a very large number of stops in a very short time and all at very low cost, with as many as 6,000 stops plannable in 10 minutes."

Looking at the bigger picture, IoT is also seen as playing a key role in Singapore's plans to digitally transform itself, one district at a time. At present, the Punggol Digital District (PDD) is acting as a testbed for the systems prior to a national roll-out. Unveiled in January, the PDD is essentially an integrated development, comprising a business park, a university and a number of commercial and residential components. When completed, it is expected to generate up to 28,000 jobs.

Showcasing Systems

Ryan Lee is the Director of the Smart District Division of JTC Corporation, the state-run Singaporean real estate company with ultimate responsibility for managing the PDD. Outlining how the project will work in real-life terms, he said: "Basically the district will showcase a variety of new systems, including smart lighting, smart toilets, building management, digital receptions, video analytics, biometric identification, smart parking and cleaning robots.

"The main street will be a pedestrian walkway linking the business park and university, in line with the national move towards a car-light society. Also planned is a drone corridor for deliveries, which will minimise risk and allow for deliveries to apartments via landings on different floors. From the PDD, the lessons learned will then be applied to future developments and then to existing communities."

Another Asian country looking to IoT to help it carve out a better future was India. Sharing a bon mot he had clearly rehearsed several times, Dr Rishi Mohan Bhatnagar, the President of the New Delhi office of Aeris Communication, a California-headquartered IoT solutions company, said: "For us, IoT means India of Tomorrow!"

Explaining the particular challenges his company was facing, he said: "India has plenty of institutions of higher learning, but the skill gap is huge. Plenty of labour, but the global trend is towards automation. Plenty of graduates, but there's not that many opportunities. And specifically, for the medical system, plenty of patients, 65% of whom are in the rural districts, but 75% of medical facilities are in the cities.

"So, the thinking on IoT is different in India. We need to ensure employment for millions, so we need to deploy tech that is useful to us – for example, tractors that provide a service for farmers, rather than autonomous cars."

Clearly somewhat evangelical with regard to the transformative potential of the technology, he said: "IoT will drive a paradigm shift in India. We are transforming India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy, while recasting its urban landscape by building 100 smart cities.

"The base from which this is growing is huge. The number of connected devices in India will increase 32-fold between 2016 and 2020, ultimately reaching 1.9 billion. Revenue will grow 700% over the same period, rising to a total of $9 billion, while generating 10-15 million new jobs along the way. At present, robots comprise less than 0.1% of India's workforce and contribute less than 4% of GDP. We want to raise this to 25% of GDP by 2025. In order to deliver on this, the Indian government is committed to a $1.2 trillion 20-year development programme."

Finishing on a note of caution, though, he said: "In the midst of all this feverish activity, we must remember that technology cannot be the tail that wags the dog. Ultimately, the value that is created in our businesses and in our countries is derived from how well we harness technology as a way of improving the quality of life of human beings. Our technology has to be embedded in our daily lives. At heart, it's not the internet of things we are trying to build – it's the internet of daily life."

Photo: The Punggol Digital District: Incubating Singapore’s street smarts.
The Punggol Digital District: Incubating Singapore's street smarts.
Photo: The Punggol Digital District: Incubating Singapore’s street smarts.
The Punggol Digital District: Incubating Singapore's street smarts.

IoT Asia 2019 took place from 27-28 March in Hall 1 of the Singapore Expo. This year, it was co-located with Last Mile Fulfilment Asia and attracted more than 8,000 delegates.

Ronald Hee, Special Correspondent, Singapore

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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