The desktop and smart phone revolutions were really just the beginning.
From conversations with giant tech companies like Cisco, Google and Xero, you get the impression that we have only scratched the surface of what technologies like the cloud, the Internet of Things, and Artificial Intelligence have to offer.
The business world has already been transformed but small businesses and entrepreneurs in Australia and around the world are about to be handed a new level of power and opportunity in the connected world.
The coming decade will see leaps and bounds in what our devices can do as they connect to the enormous power of the cloud. Meanwhile, the sheer number of devices connected will explode, from around 7 billion now to upwards of 50 billion by 2020.
And all of this will feed into a new wave of artificial intelligence.
But the big difference may be in what drives these advances. Rather than distributing and decentralising access to the internet and computational thinking, as ever cheaper computers have done, the key to the next phase is connectivity. New technologies will use the high-speed connections are being built between them and us. This will allow us to access, add to, and learn from the huge amount of data that is being created.
In the short run, at least, the biggest change in cloud computing may be on the human side rather than the technological. We can already see some of this take shape in the cloud, as more and more aspects of society are subsumed into it — from word processing to storage and even taxation. It’s still early days for cloud services adoption: only about 15% of the Australian market has signed on to some kind of cloud service, for example.
So, the key to the cloud’s future growth is in small business, according to Xero‘s Australian Managing Director, Trent Innes. While consumers were brought onto the cloud through platforms like iCloud and Google Drive, and big businesses and organisations by the likes of Amazon Web Services, small businesses will be the next cohort to take advantage of these new development.
“Small businesses were pretty much left out in the cold until recently. As a result, cloud adoption among small businesses has been much slower than other sectors,” says Innes.
Once small business gets going on the cloud, as ubiquitous computing and the true power of their internet connection is unlocked, Innes says this will change how business operates.
“You can already run your business remotely, but I think we’ll see that trend happen even more so, as our thinking about how a business can and should run, catches up with the capabilities the cloud gives us.”
“As more businesses are exposed to and move to the cloud, the way they operate will also fundamentally change. A lot of this comes down to how we act as humans, instead of what the technology can do. There’s a bit of a catch-up that needs to take place, but I think over the next five years, we’ll see a really fundamental change in how businesses operate.”
The Internet of Things
The cloud will change the way people approach business, but the Internet of Things will fundamentally alter the way technology connects almost everything.
“By 2020 we expect there be 50 billion things connected,” Cisco Australia CTO Kevin Bloch told Business Insider. These devices won’t all be objects with computer chips embedded in them, but can range anywhere from something with a simple electric current, right up to a wind turbine with more than 200 CPUs in it.
The key is the ability to gather, analyze, and distribute data. It could be a tag on a cows ear, a tracker on a shipping pallet, or even a water bottle. They will all be useful, or at least informative, in isolation. But when all of this information is brought together it will be transformational, giving businesses large and small real-time, actionable information around the clock.
Entrepreneurs and small businesses will be able to monitor the locations and activity of every physical asset, from the parcels shipped by a boutique craft seller to the widgets installed by tradies. But it’s not simply going to be about location and whether the device is working or not.
Bloch describes the coming explosion in IoT as the next phase of the internet, the point where decisions move from being made by humans and start being made by machines. He’s talking about artificial intelligence here, but IoT is inextricably linked with artificial intelligence, because, as he notes, “the food for the computer is data”. And all of these 50 billion connected things will be an amazing source of data.
“You get data by measuring the physical world. Where ‘things’ are translating the physical world into the digital world,” says Bloch.
“Why? So that we’ve got data. Why? So we can use computers. Why? Because they can do a hell of a lot more than your and my brain.”
Artificial intelligence is by no means a new concept, appearing in fiction for at least a couple of hundred years, and tech companies throwing resources at it for decades. But until recently it hasn’t had much of an impact.
“Back in the 80s we didn’t have the processing power, the chips, the compute, the feed to really be able to process an algorithm like that. It takes literally hundreds of thousands of examples to train something,” according to a Google researcher who spoke to Business Insider.
But the last couple of decades, and especially the last few years, have seen some massive advances. Take Google’s AlphaGo program, which recently beat a Korean Grandmaster at Go. Or even the much vaunted Computer Vision, which has applications everywhere from your Snapchat filters to automated cars.
The keys to these recent and extraordinary advances have been movements in number of interconnected areas, the amount of data available, the ability to store it all, the computing grunt power and algorithms to analyse it, as well as some advances in hardware.
Training a computer, or even a search engine, to be able to recognise an image requires a huge amount of data and grunt to process it all. These are things that have only recently become available.
The Google researcher, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity for this article, see this kind of potential exploding over the coming years as AI moves out of the exclusive domain of companies like theirs.
“The reason why Google was able to accomplish this is that we did have this supercomputer infrastructure to handle the compute, storage and analytics that you did to perform machine learning. Now that more companies are getting into the cloud computing pool, they are digitising [things like photos] at a faster rate, so there are now opportunities for them to consider machine learning,” said the Google Researcher.
And we are starting to see movement in the four areas the researchers point out as pivotal — companies like Facebook and Google are open sourcing AI components, cloud computing puts huge computing power on tap, and more public datasets are opening up.
And connectivity will be at the heart of unlocking all of this promise, for companies of all sizes, as well as providing a platform for the realisation of an entirely new suite of ideas from entrepreneurs in Australia and around the world.
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