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The end of the mundane

How can your business benefit from AI, automation and robotics?

How AI, automation and robotics are coming together (Zack Hoosen)

In IoT.nxt’s boardroom, four huge flatpanels dominate one of the walls. The screens light up, displaying various graphs and stats. These all reflect one of the company’s clients, a major mining firm.

It’s impressive: the interface shows how loads of ore are mined, hauled and processed through various stages. According to Nico Steyn, IoT.next CEO, this changed everything: at least one of the processes were never even recorded, while the rest relied on handwritten notes or spreadsheets that were cumbersomely quantified every day. Now, thanks to the help of sensors and a layer of Internet of Things (IoT) bridging technology, those gaps are not only plugged, but the quality of data is vastly better and delivered in real time. The mine’s CEO now apparently sleeps with his tablet.

“Our job is to challenge traditional thinking, but not to rip and replace” said Nico Steyn, IoT.nxt CEO. “If IoT is done right, it is still your business, only better.”

He then displayed another customer, a car service operation, where security cameras are used to track every vehicle. Real time reports are sent to employee devices, indicating the status of every car, estimated time of its process and even if the customer needs it delivered - all done by connecting existing hardware to digital platforms through IoT wizardry. And it took only a few weeks to implement.

“Most companies already have silos of technology. We break those down and have them talk to each other, to create something better.”

Welcome to 4.0

This is the promise of Industry 4.0 or the 4th Industrial Revolution, a phrase technologists throw around with abandon. It's often attributed to Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum and a long-time advocate of using technology to evolve companies beyond bottom-line chasers. But even if profit is the only motive, the promise of Industry 4.0 is enticing.

“The First Industrial Revolution used steam power to mechanise production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies thats' blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres,” says Schwab.

That fusion is changing how we work. Not the endless speculation about millennials wanting to work at home (who doesn’t?), but more fundamental tasks. Why do stock takes when CCTV cameras and RFID can track stock in real time? Why employ a permanent accountant when a machine can manage transactions? Why spend fortunes on market reports if an AI agent churning data can deliver insight faster?

The automated world

There are three distinct categories fueling Industry 4.0: artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation/orchestration. Each deserves an article of their own, but explained expediently: AI is software that does certain tasks autonomously and can improve itself; robotics is a machine that does a physical task autonomously; and automation/orchestration is any task or process that isn’t done manually.

The octane in the tank that's making this burn brightly now is big data and the power of cloud platforms. Big data delivers the substance that improves the above categories, while cloud offers supercomputing on the cheap, so robust platforms and systems that chew data and implement the findings are bordering on commodities.

This is unleashing formerly docile and underdeveloped technologies. Reggie Bradford, SVP of Product Development at Oracle, believes AI will be not the next big thing, but THE big thing: “AI will be a bigger transformation than mobile. It is automating tasks that were traditionally mundane, thus making us more efficient and effective. There isn’t a space in life that won’t be impacted by AI.”

This assertion is true: since discovering the profound effect big data has on it, AI has been exploding. But it is also very cutting edge and thus expensive to invest in. Fortunately automation is not yet beholden to AI. Andre Zitzke, solution specialist: analytics at SAS, highlights many of the new names in the AI world, such as machine learning (a type of single-focus or ‘thin’ AI), include methods and systems that have been around for a lot longer. Though automation will certainly benefit from AI, it’s not a vital component just yet. Even seemingly rudimentary if-then-then-that systems are still highly effective: “The applications I have been hearing about are more around building rules. 'Did a warning signal come in? Then do this or that'.”

He adds that IoT and other big data pipelines will build on that and toward AI: “Now we have a lot of data and we want to see what we can learn from that. This is where machine learning comes in to take the next step of progression. The traditional rule-based approach allows the analytics portion to learn from those processes.”

Big leaps in little steps

Automation should be the key focus in this transformation, reinforced with analytics and eventual expansion into AI. This is also the easier path: it is becoming cheaper and faster to connect existing environments with digital backends. A simple sensor can give a door intelligence, a loyalty card can build a customer profile, a drone can capture 3D data for planning room installations.

Industry 4.0 is very broad, so much so that a handful of categories hide the real grain of its surface. So it is hard to quantify what the impact will be on any business. Every company should identify its goals and then investigate the possibilities. It may be as relatively simple as adding automation to an existing CRM or feeding a fleet’s tracking data into other areas of the business.

But take heart that you don’t need a big bang approach, just a steady journey of discovery where the new is introduced to the established. AI, robotics and automation are changing the world, by removing mundane tasks out of manual hands. Any business can start with pockets of Industry 4.0 and build on that. The only mistake would be to ignore this trend.

Machines Wanted! Apply Now!
Where are we starting to feel the impact of AI, robotics and automation? Here are three futuristic examples:

Chat Bots
AI masquerading as people are becoming quite commonplace. Companies can develop Facebook Messenger bots that handle specific services. In the US you can order an Uber ride using a Facebook bot. But the technology has its flaws and there are numerous examples of customers have frustrating conversations with virtual agents. But they are increasingly being used to help channel queries to the right agents,with humans taking over with deeper help when things get a little more complicated - think of the automated IVR telephone tree systems when dialling into call centres.

Robotic shelves
Not everyone is Amazon, so not everyone can afford to build a custom factory where robotic shelves move around. But this trial is a glimpse of the future: human packers work at the edges, while mobile shelves sit in the centre, stacked against each other. The shelves are able to move themselves out of the pack efficiently whenever items they carry are required, and the system can even predict what shelf will be called and dispatch it ahead of time.

Autonomous lettuce
Farming yields are actually not great: if a farm can produce above 50%, it’s doing well. Hitting a yield of over 90% is just one of the goals at Spread’s Robofarm - an automated factory that grows lettuce. Currently being built in Japan, the prototype’s automation also aims to cut power costs by a third while eventually delivering ten times as many heads of lettuce.

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