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Making cutting-edge technology work for your business

By Jess Crandon, Digital Storyteller on 10/11/2017

Filed under Digital Transformation

AI in agriculture

The rapid emergence of new technologies can make it hard to keep up. And it’s even harder to know what’s what, what can help your business, what’s just hype, and what’s worth having a conversation about. So, at this year’s Microsoft Future Decoded, Michael Wignall, Chief Technology Officer at Microsoft UK, gave a talk about the must-have technologies for all businesses.

No matter what industry you’re in, and no matter what stage you’re at, the change in tech will impact you. We’ve distilled the below technologies into a useful ‘need-to-know’ guide, to help you in conversations with colleagues, partners and customers about what the most relevant technology for your organisation is. There’s a lot of tech to cover, but this should give you a working knowledge of what the technology is, what the application is for your business, where we see benefits, and where we think it’ll impact you from a disruption context in the fourth industrial revolution.

Cloud

Now, the cloud may not be breaking news – but it’s not to be missed. It’s changed the way we consume computing, thanks to the elasticity of demand and only having to use and pay for what you need. Thanks to the cloud, we’re seeing a paradigm shift in how we use technology.

All of the benefits we talk about are tied to value:

  • The cloud is there and available for you to use. You can spin it up and down when you need to use it, rather than buying infrastructure and paying to store and manage it.
  • There’s confidence around trust and assurance in cybersecurity. For example, Azure has robust privacy, transparency and security features.
  • Performance and scale, from a computing perspective, is consistent and improving.

The IoT

The last couple of years hasn’t just been about what’s in the cloud, but also what’s at the edge. The Internet of Things (IoT) has become more prominent in the last couple of years, with sensors and technology put in devices and objects all around the world. We’re able to get data from everything: cars, street lights, fridges, wearables, and homes. This is partly due to computing power centralising in the cloud, and becoming cost-effective to distribute.

People are now seeing the connection between the cloud and the edge in a new way. It’s the combination of cloud capabilities and the IoT, and the recognition that for some requirements, you’ll want to take advantage of cloud computing, and for others, you’ll need to be at the edge.

If you’ve got bad connectivity and you’re disconnected, you’re more than likely going to want to be at the edge. Perhaps you need to adhere to specific requirements around low latency or data sovereignty requirements.

Combining the cloud and the edge allows you to act both proactively and reactively:

  • Sending data to the cloud allows you for proactive, predictive analysis, showing you trends over a long period of time.
  • Having sensors at the intelligent edge allows for reactive activity over short periods of time.

Big data

The cloud and the IoT lets you collect and store vast amounts of data. But there’s no point having access to it and not being able to use it sufficiently.

In the last decade, analogue data, from CDs and DVDS, has dropped off. The growth of cloud and IoT data is soaring, and it’s coming from sensors all over the world. Plus, with the growth of the mobile market, we’re seeing vast amounts of data come in from that too. This trend is likely to continue in the future, with more and more data coming together in the cloud. And as cloud capability will scale, increased performance and reliability will let you handle it.

People talking about the future don’t like putting a number on the amount of data we’re likely to have in five, ten years. Usually because it’s always wrong. However, the latest figure predicts that by 2020, we expect to have 50 zettabytes of data. One zettabyte is a trillion trillion bytes of data. It’s more data than we’ve ever had or collected.

So, then we have to ask what the value is? We’re collecting it, and we can support it thanks to the cloud. But what can we do with it? The below image shows a few possibilities, comparing old ways with what’s possible now.

Data opportunity slide

The principle here isn’t that big data itself is valuable. It’s more about the intelligence we can get from this data – which is where machine learning and AI come in.

Cybersecurity

Technology touches every business now, so it’s vital to understand the tech environment and how it’s changed. You’re now more connected than ever: you’re connected to your supply chain, your partners, and your customers, through your employees and your suppliers. Connectivity requirements have changed too. It’s not just about a person working remotely and outside of your firewall. It’s having the ability to give third parties direct access into your services, so they can update your inventory. It’s giving citizens the ability to update their data directly in your databases. The perimeter isn’t the edge of your network anymore, so you need to think about cybersecurity in a very different way.

Threats aren’t as targeted or focused as you may think. The majority of cybersecurity attacks are opportunistic, taking advantage of businesses that aren’t thinking in new ways about their data estate and cloud.

There are three key elements to cybersecurity: detection, protection and response. Most people only think about the protection, and while it’s wildly important, the average time (according to one survey) that an attacker spends undetected in a breached network is 144 days.

So, for Michael, detection is the most important part. You need to know you’ve been breached. But when you’ve got vast amounts of data and a spread-out infrastructure, it’s hard to know where an attacker is hiding. Unless you’re thinking about your security and cyber landscape in a holistic approach, you might not discover a breach until it’s too late.

Blockchain

There’s a huge buzz around blockchain at the moment. And in among all the hype, it’s hard to know what’s media hyperbole, and what’s actually relevant to your business. So, when you think blockchain, think about these characteristics: secure, trusted, shared, ledger.

  • Secure and trusted: there’s a lot of crypto and complex maths underlying it, preventing fraud.
  • Shared: there’s no centralised hub for blockchain, instead it’s distributed. Replicates can be shared and copied, meaning it’s available and open for people to look at and interrogate.
  • A ledger: once the data’s been written, it can’t be changed. So once something has been written in blockchain, it can’t be unwritten. It can be modified and edited, but the original can’t be undone.

These elements give you a secure, distributed transaction history.

While most people associated blockchain with bitcoin, there are many applications for all industries and businesses. The key point is decentralisation. Disruptors like Uber and Air Bnb use some of this technology. What makes them successful is the disintermediation of existing businesses’ processes. Blockchain is a way of doing this: it eliminates the need for an intermediary. It lets you interact directly with each other, without relying on a central organisation.

What blockchain can do for your organisation:

  • Allow direct interactions with whoever you’re working
  • Reduce fraud from a security and trust perspective
  • Increase efficiency and speed
  • Increase revenue and savings, depending on how it’s implemented

Blockchain isn’t the panacea for all things, but it’s going to fundamentally change business processes. Michael recommends that you start thinking about the applications of blockchain, about how a shared, secure, trusted ledger can improve your business processes. There’s no need to worry about the technical foundation underneath blockchain: at Microsoft, we can handle the heavy lifting, leaving you to see how it can fit into your business.

Mixed reality

Virtual or digital reality envelopes you into an entire world, giving you an incredible visual experience – but you’re unable to walk or move around in it. Mixed reality lets you combine virtual and physical, and its value lies in the ability to superimpose virtual objects into the real world.

But how we’re using it now is only just scratching the surface. This is due to barriers behind full adoption:

  • Cost implications: devices need to be cost effective and cheap so that everyone can have one.
  • Skills gap: developers need the skills to write applications for mixed reality. The best applications now are coming from games developers, who are used to working in a 3D world.

Ford is using HoloLens in a truly innovative way at the moment. While designing and manufacturing cars, models would be made from clay and shipped around the world for designers to edit. Now, however, HoloLens brings these teams together to look at the vehicle collaboratively. They can make changes to it, and instantly see the impact on the car. For example, if they want to change the size of a wing mirror, they have access to regulations around size, and can instantly see how the view will change for the person sat inside.

Michael stated that if you’re not thinking about customer interactions and how you can apply this to your business, you should be.

AI

Once you’ve collected big data, secured it and stored it, you can add value through AI and machine learning. The press has regular field-days around the impact of AI, but from our perspective at Microsoft, AI will amplify human ingenuity. And it’s doing so in three ways: reasoning, understanding, and interacting.

  • Reasoning: use your unique data and augment your business in new, unimaginable ways. Machine learning capabilities come in here, taking imperfect data and learning how to read it and gain value.
  • Understanding: interpret business and customer data in real time and scale including text, docs, images, video and voice.
  • Interacting: remove tech barriers with customers and multiply employee capabilities. This is where we’re most familiar with AI today.

It’s important to think about AI applications in your business through the above three elements. It may solve what you can’t solve yourself. The amount of data we’re able to collect now makes it impossible for humans to read it all. There’s too much of it, and we don’t have the time. So, you need to use machines, you need to take advantage of AI to analyse your data and give you intelligence and insight.

Quantum

Despite so many technological leaps, we’re still limited by silicon on chips and standard computational theory. And if we’re going to focus on the world’s biggest challenges, we’ll need a lot more power.

The traditional way of problem-solving using computers is trial and error. A computer will try options one after another until it gets to the right one. But when you’re using quantum level ability to compute across infinite universes, you can find answers in seconds. You can try every permutation simultaneously to get your answer. And this will fundamentally change the way we think about solving problems. When you don’t need to try options one at time, when quantum allows us to try everything at once, then we’ll see a huge increase in our capability.

 

See how Dixons Carphone is using AI to improve the retail experience

Watch Satya Nadella talk about quantum computing at this year’s Ignite

See more about how Ford is using HoloLens to work more collaboratively

Visit the Microsoft Trust Centre for more information around cybersecurity and GDPR

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