December 24, 2019

How does the world change if computers can identify you instantly in a crowd of thousands? What does computing even look like in a world without data centres, where every device from your smartphone to a thermostat is a learning, data-gathering device?

And how will we ever have the network capacity and data transmission speeds to handle all of these?

These were some of the burning questions addressed at Singapore FinTech Festival (SFF) x the Singapore Week of Innovation and TeCHnology (SWITCH), where industry leaders in FinTech and deep tech met with regulators, financial institutions, and innovators from around the world.

Impossible to compute: the unprecedented change of scale in processing power

From smartphones to smart homes, the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are taking computing beyond the realm of silicon.

Reflecting on the coming decade of computing, Laura Wynter, Head of Real World AI, IBM Research Singapore Lab, examined the growing role of edge computing. This means processing data at the place it’s being generated - the edge of the network - instead of processing it in a data centre.

Edge computing enables effective application of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. An example was screened in a video, in which IBM placed trackers on animals such as impalas. These animals are among the first to detect and flee poachers. As such, their movement patterns can then be used to spot poachers, and alert the authorities to the location. This technology is being used to protect endangered rhinos in South Africa.

Helmut G Katzgraber, Principal Research Manager, Microsoft identified cloud computing as one of the decade’s game changers: we may not be able to have a quantum computer in our basement, but we can now access one somewhere in the cloud. This gives users unparalleled access to computing power, as they’re no longer restricted by needing to own or have access to the hardware itself.

Changes at the speed of light: 2030 and the near future

With so much more demanded of our computers, how can we handle the increased need for better data transmission, and higher network capacity? And how will the rise of these new technologies impact us on levels such as the workforce?

Kim Roberts, Vice President of WaveLogic Science, Ciena, and Mary Ward-Callan, Managing Director, Technical Activities, IEEE, explored the topic in “IEEE N3XT® 2030 Outlook: Convergence, Evolution or Tech Revolution?” panel discussion.

As Roberts pointed out, fibre optic communications are used in all high capacity networks today, making them absolutely integral in the transmission of data. But the demand for network capacity continues to increase, and fibre optics providers are faced with meeting that demand, without too much incremental cost.

Looking further into 2030, Roberts identified a few possible advancements to follow. These include hollow-core fibre, which has air or vacuum instead of glass in the centre of the cable for better transmission, or the use of Optical Signal Processing (OSP). OSP would use high-speed photonics to handle the signal processing, instead of conventional signal processing software. This would increase functionality without adding too much cost.

Other possibilities include reduced cladding in cables, which improves mechanical properties, or using multiple core fibres to reduce coupling issues. In all cases, the emphasis in our run-up to 2030 will be to increase the optical spectrum, as the need for network capacity keeps rising.

While Roberts addressed the data transmission front, Ward-Callan looked at the development of our entire tech ecosystem. A looming issue leading into 2030 is workforce development: we need to prepare for more computing, mathematics, and engineering jobs. Likewise, we need to prepare for redundancies from automation, and ways to retrain the workforce.

Ward-Callan also notes the rise of the gig economy. While the gig economy will spur innovation and entrepreneurship, it is likely to be followed by greater government regulation; labour laws will have to be updated to keep pace with this growing form of self-employment.

As such, today’s workforce could look very different come 2030, as can public policies as they adapt to different technologies.

Taking part in the transformation

Tony Fadell, iPod inventor, iPhone co-inventor, Nest Founder and Future Shape principal contributed his design expertise and explained how innovators can make their own mark in the world.

Speaking to Glenn Zorpette, Executive Editor of IEEE Spectrum, Fadell laid out the key lessons he’s learned throughout his career and while working under the late Steve Jobs.

The most enduring lesson, he said, was to understand design in the form of a holistic user experience. Design begins from the point where people talk about a product, to their excitement at unboxing it, and even to the later maintenance and updates. “It’s about an entire relationship with the customer, at every touchpoint.”

Of course, this would require significant investments of time and effort. After all, it means devoting effort not just to a product’s design and technology; it means equal attention is given to its media presence, its accessories, its servicing—the list goes on. 

But this ties in to the second lesson, which is to “say no.” 

Fadell urged the audience to “focus on something and do it really, really well.” This can mean turning down other extraneous work, so that you have the time to hone every aspect of your design. This is almost unavoidable, if we’re to manufacture a whole experience and not just a product. 

When the infrastructure is ready, the invention will be relevant

Even the most visionary product may not take off, if the right infrastructure and zeitgeist aren’t around to back it up. After all, you can’t create a positive experience, if there’s insufficient understanding among consumers; or if there isn’t an ecosystem to make it work.

Fadell referred to his time working with General Magic, a company that had tried to launch an iPhone-like device much too early. This was in the ‘90s: mobile networks were quite new, and “no one was shopping online, no one had ever downloaded a game.” The General Magic documentary chronicles this journey.

The descendant of that first failed attempt, the iPhone, only succeeded in 2007. This was after society had understood—at first through the iPod—the convenience of having photos, videos, games, etc. in one device.

Given the pace of change, the right time is likely to be sooner than later

Facial recognition, cloud computing, and even the smartphone already in your hand was once the province of science-fiction.

Given the pace at which technology is accelerating, innovators are also in a better position than ever: the advanced infrastructures for their products are being built at a rapid pace; and through technology events like SFF x SWITCH, they have more opportunity than ever to meet the right investors or partners to innovate and transform our world.