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BusinessDay: Life on the edge: how smart devices are shaping the future

By Johan Steyn, 26 January 2022

The new technology era has introduced software, algorithms and systems that are smart. They are infused with computerised intelligence, which means that the ability to learn, recognise patterns, execute tasks and make decisions autonomously is no longer in the domain of science fiction.

At the forefront of this intelligence explosion are devices and sensors that not only gather unimaginably large amounts of data but can also store and process the data at the source.

Data-gathering sensors are nothing new. When it comes to electricity distribution, agriculture, infrastructure management, and security, data-reading technology has been around for decades.

There have been some “dumb” versions of these devices in the past that didn’t understand the data collected nor communicate with other devices. Decisions were made based on the interpretation of sensor data by human operators.

Our world has been transformed by the rise of technologies such as cloud computing, exponential processing power and machine learning, all of which have made devices more important than before. Smartphones, smartwatches and other smart wearables aren’t just for businesses any more; we all have them in our pockets.

We are, in a sense, instrumenting our world. Not only are the instruments smarter, but their ability to communicate large amounts of data streams has accelerated due to better communication technologies such as the fifth generation of broadband cellular communications (5G).

The device-driven technology is commonly referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). The business applications have been astounding. Common use cases are, for example, location tracking, fleet management, remote asset monitoring, security and predictive maintenance.

Data from IoT devices can be collected and processed locally rather than having to be sent back to a central server or cloud, making it easier to spot patterns and take immediate action, such as anomaly detection for proactive maintenance. Smart devices that can store and process data are referred to as edge computing, as the magic happens “on the edge” of the device ecosystem.

By redefining how devices and people interact, IoT technology is also revolutionising the healthcare industry. Fitbits and other wirelessly connected wearables, such as blood pressure cuffs, glucose meters, and other such medical devices, allow patients to receive more personalised care. For example, these gadgets can be programmed so they alert the wearer to calorie consumption and other health-related issues such as blood pressure changes.

Of great concern is the security of smart devices. Our mobile phones are the smartest devices that go with us everywhere. Many wonder whether our phones are always listening. After a conversation with a friend or colleague, have you noticed how often your Google or Facebook advertising feeds are customised to the topics you have discussed?

Imagine the potential impact on industrial espionage if hackers could access building security cameras, track the movement of precious cargo or even listen in on a board meeting. Even worse, what if our medical devices are compromised? Just think of the life-threatening impact if an insulin pump or heart implant is compromised by malware?

Welcome to the new era where smart devices influence our surroundings and even our bodies. Edge computing will revolutionise our society as we build smart cities across the globe, and where the lines between being human or machine will become continuously blurred.

• Steyn is chair of the special interest group on artificial intelligence and robotics with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals of SA.


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