Thriving in the age of Smart Technologies & Smart Machines at Atal Tinkering Lab

Air Force School, Hebbal, Bangalore
Author : Kiran Kumar H S


In this blog, we look at some of the emerging digital trends shaping our lives today as well as in the foreseeable future. We then identify a broad array of skill-sets that need to be acquired by students in order to thrive in the age of smart digital technologies and smart machines.

Digital Economy

Today, we are living in the digital economy, where digital products & services abound. The backbone of the digital economy is hyper-connectivity - which means growing inter-connectedness of people, organisations and machines that results from the internet, social media, mobile technology and smart devices. The emergence of smart digital products, services and machines are changing the way we live, work and play. Today, we cannot imagine living without several digital products & services as they are becoming highly pervasive. Digital products such as Smart phones, Smart watches & Fitbits; digital services such as Google search, Google Maps, Gmail, Facebook & WhatsApp are today inextricably woven into the very fabric of our daily life.

Digital Convergence

This digital revolution currently under way is being driven by several existing and emerging digital technologies such as Web, Mobile, Internet of Things, Robotics, Big Data, Analytics, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual & Augmented Reality apart from Blockchain, Cloud Computing and others. In fact, digital convergence, which is the coming together of several digital technologies is giving rise to Smart & Adaptive Machines that are intelligent and capable of adapting to the preferences of their users and also to their surrounding environments. For e.g., Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and Apple’s Siri are voice assistant services that combine technologies such as IoT and Machine Learning. Similarly, Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner from iRobot combines IoT, Machine Learning and Robotics technologies to provide automated and intelligent cleaning solutions for homes. Likewise, Google is able to provide real-time traffic updates to commuters on city roads using a combination of Mobile, IoT and data analytics technologies.

Digital Transformation

Increasing adoption of such smart and adaptive machines is leading to digital transformation of homes, businesses, industries and the society in general. As far as businesses and industries are concerned, digital transformation is bringing fundamental changes to how they operate and add value to their customers. It is making these organizations more customer-centric while also improving operational efficiency, productivity and bringing down costs. It is helping them introduce new digital-enabled products & services while also enabling new business models and revenue streams.

The Industry 4.0 initiative which is being increasingly embraced by manufacturing companies across the world aims to derive the benefits of digital transformation across the manufacturing industry. For e.g., Live sensor data from cars on the road is analysed to identify wear and tear of vehicle parts. It is then used to alert the vehicle owner in case a part replacement is required. In addition, the information is also sent to the service station as well as to the car manufacturer. While the service station arranges for the car to be brought to the garage for servicing, the manufacturer will 3D print the vehicle part and ship it to the service station just in time for the servicing job. Industry 4.0 interconnects the end-to-end value chain comprising of the customer, the service station, the manufacturer as well as their suppliers in a holistic fashion to deliver superior customer experience as well as achieve efficiency and productivity levels unheard of before. In fact, Industry 4.0 has advanced to such an extent today that the first 3D printed car is launching in the market this year - 2019. See article here. 3D printing is also making its presence felt in the fast-food industry today - for making pizzas and burgers! See here.

Digital Disruption

At the same time, digital transformation is also leading to digital disruption, a phenomenon in which existing and entrenched businesses and their business models are being displaced by new digital upstarts. For e.g., Uber and Ola have disrupted the radio taxi business during the last few years. Similarly, Airbnb has disrupted the hotel industry by allowing people to let-out their private properties to others who are looking for accommodation that are affordable and convenient than hotels.

In addition, digital transformation is also leading to increased automation of jobs, especially those that involve routine operations. As a consequence, we are seeing gradual reduction in labour required to perform routine and repetitive jobs.

Although some jobs are getting automated, new types of jobs are opening up. Today, there is a severe shortage of workforce with strong skills in emerging technologies such as Machine Learning and AI. See article here. As a result, there is a significant exercise currently underway in Indian IT industry to re-skill and up-skill existing IT workforce to help them adopt to the digital disruption of knowledge work. Employees are being trained in IoT, Machine Learning, Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence technologies as the IT services industry is trying to stay relevant to their global clients, who themselves are grappling with the onslaught of digital transformation and digital disruption in their markets.

Second Machine Age and the Machine Economy

All these dynamic changes are leading us into the second machine age, where intelligent machines based on IoT, Big Data, Robotics & Artificial intelligence are able to assimilate data from multiple sources, process them in real-time, take decisions and actions on their own. They are increasingly becoming autonomous, and are able to perform human-like knowledge intensive jobs with little or no human intervention. For e.g., AI based chat-bots are being extensively used by businesses to answer a variety of customer queries and improve customer experience. See article here. IBM’s Watson, a computer using artificial intelligence can provide better legal advice than any human lawyer possible can. It employs Big data and AI technologies to consult the entire gamut of state and federal laws in response to a legal query and deliver legal advice in real-time. See article here. Likewise, BAYOU is a new class of AI software developed by Rice University in the US that can write software with only a few high-level inputs from designers. It uses deep learning to write software programs by analysing thousands of existing software programs available on open-source GitHub repository. See an article here.

In the medium to long run, these Cognitive Machines, as they are being called, will increasingly drive the economy, leading us into the Machine Economy, where smart, autonomous, networked and economically independent machines with in-built digital wallets will one day drive commercial transactions with other smart machines on their own with no human intervention. For e.g., your car will automatically pay the fuel pump for re-fuelling the car at the gas station without you having to explicitly pay for it. Your coffee maker at home will one day pay the refrigerator in the kitchen for requesting milk replenishment using crypto currency! See article here.

Society 5.0

As the economy shifts increasingly towards machine-driven labour and transactions, it will alter how the society will function. In fact, some technologically advanced countries such as Japan have already begun working towards Society 5.0, a vision of a super-smart society where smart & autonomous machines will bring significant improvements to the quality of human lives, increase human comfort, bring vitality to people, resolve long-standing social challenges among other benefits. Watch video here. Preventive healthcare through wearable tech, robot assisted care giving, automatic production of products in factories, drone-based home delivery of products, increased production of food through precision agriculture, etc. will be common in a society that has embraced Society 5.0.

Acquiring Skills for the age of Smart Technologies & Smart Machines

A few years before, nobody thought that Artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies would bring about such dramatic changes in our lives. But today, much of science fiction is turning into reality. See video here. We can’t predict the future with certainty. But the trends are pointing us in a direction of the future that is both exciting as well as scary at the same time. With right knowledge and understanding, strong skills and adequate preparedness, students will be able to go a long way in meeting the future with optimism and excitement. Students need to equip themselves with a broad array of knowledge and skills required to thrive in the age of smart technologies and smart machines. Here are a few important & recommended skills to consider:

  • Understand broad trends and shifts shaping the world: Students need to understand the technological, economic and societal forces and trends shaping the world today. Specifically, in relation to the digital reality of today, students need to understand all about digital economy, digital transformation and digital disruptions that are impacting homes, businesses and industries. This will enable students to have a clear vision of the kind of future that awaits them and prepare themselves to take on the challenges and opportunities ahead.

  • Develop Creative Talents: Students need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes their way in bringing out their latent creative talents through hands-on experiments and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. As the “age of machines” advances in the coming years, good ideas and creative skills will be more valuable than labour in the job market. A word of caution though. While creativity is still considered as a domain of human beings, machines are fast catching up. For e.g., AI based algorithms today have entered the domain of arts which is traditionally considered a creative field. These AI-based software algorithms can already draw, sketch and paint portraits with some amount of success. See an article here. AI-based software algorithms have also begun composing music these days. See another article here. So, human creativity and ingenuity needs to constantly stay ahead of machine-creativity in order to sustain our dominance over machines.

  • Learn the art of Innovation: Students need to learn the art of innovation and train themselves in innovation processes and methodologies such as Design Thinking, Critical Thinking, Systems Thinking, etc. Today, we need more innovators than students with merely high academic scores (although having good scores is also important). Fortunately, many schools are setting up innovation centres such as the Atal Tinkering Labs (ATLs) in their premises these days. Students need to actively take advantage of the resources available at these labs and learn the art of innovation through practical hands-on and DIY projects.

  • Gain broad understanding of Emerging Technology areas: Students have to have a broad understanding of emerging digital technologies. When one has a broad understanding of trends shaping the future and combines it with technological and innovative skills, it becomes very powerful. Students who can bring such multi-dimensional skills to the table will be more successful than those who possess unidirectional skills.

  • Develop a strong Point of View (PoV): Students need to be encouraged to have a point-of-view on any subject of their interest. Having a strong point of view requires both broad understanding of a subject as well as gaining depth in a few areas within the subject. Without this, students remain superficial and are unable to gain strong foothold in any field. They will fumble through their student years and are quickly lost in the maze of missed opportunities in a few years from now.

  • Acquire Leadership Skills: Skills such as courage, risk taking ability, empathy, patience, perseverance, tenacity, discipline, commitment, etc. have always been important to success. They become all the more important in the age of machines, where humans have to differentiate themselves from machine skills. For e.g., machines may not understand about integrity and ethics. It is an area where humans can discern what is good and bad, what is ethical and what is not, especially where the borderline is thin. Strong ethical leadership in the age of machines is vital for the good of society. Otherwise, we may end up creating monstrous and evil machines which may prove determinant to humans themselves.