Advances in emerging technologies have created an environment ripe for inventors and entrepreneurs seeking to create innovative solutions and products which are designed to improve and better existing business processes. The role of Digital Transformation can be thought of as a process facilitating the shift towards more efficient and productive ways of doing things. In this article, we will review some of the more recent advancements in emerging technologies that are helping businesses transform their operations.
Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning
There is an ongoing conversation about how the industry is using these terms and whether there is more buzz around AI than the actual value. Regardless of the outcome of this linguistic conundrum, these technologies have started to demonstrate a significant impact on business processes, creating new opportunities and improving business outcomes. More recently, a new term has emerged – Cognitive Solution. It is being used more fluently as a reference to anything that may use Machine Learning, which involves algorithms that can learn from existing data and predict outcomes, as well as Artificial Intelligence, which refers to decision making systems. The concept of automation has also started to become synonymous with AI, as a lot of Robotic Process Automation systems have started to include Machine Learning in their system design.
One of the areas where Machine Learning has been taking hold is recruitment or talent acquisition. In a traditional process, a hiring manager creates a job post, which is then given to teams of recruiters, who post it on job boards. They then try to find a match in their internal databases or scour online profiles for the right candidate. This ends up being a very tedious and often biased process, the accuracy of which depends on the level of skill the recruiter possesses in the field where the talent is being recruited.
Over the last few years, some automation has taken hold. Applicant tracking systems can filter some of the candidates based on keyword search and parameterized filtering. This still results in many hours of manual work to sift through potential matches. Thanks to Machine Learning a good part of the whole candidate to job match process can now be automated. IBM Watson Recruitment is one such system that provides match scores based on how individual profiles correspond to given job descriptions. All of this can greatly simplify a recruiter’s job and make placements more accurate and lasting.
Predictive Analytics is another broad umbrella of systems and tools which often use Cognitive Solutions to predict anything from consumer shopping behavior to medical diagnosis which can help create a better treatment regime for people with certain medical risks, something only a health care professional who has been with a patient for a long time, can do otherwise.
Automation is the pinnacle of Machine Learning and is where systems gain their Artificial Intelligence capabilities. Marketing Automation has been on the market for at least half a decade and set the example of what this technology is capable of. Other industries are starting to get into automation as well. RPA systems such as UiPath allows companies to replace manual data entry and wrangling with virtual Bots which can do screen scraping, data manipulation, and complex decision making processes, ultimately resulting in much more efficient business operations.
Through advances in computer vision, processes that involve tangible and mechanical components such as factories and warehouses are also embracing AI. Amazon is using over 40000 automated warehouse robots that work in a swarm, constantly talking to each other and negotiating best routes using Machine Learning. This technology even earned a new nickname, Cobot, a term meaning a collaborative robot. Self-driving cars currently represent a pinnacle of robotic automation and while many obstacles still remain, they will eventually be able to replace human operated vehicles.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
Virtual Reality has been around for quite some time. The first head mounted display was introduced in the 1960s as part of the pilot training system by Hughes Aircraft Company. The revival of AR and VR in the last few years can be attributed to increased reliability of hardware, lower costs to entry and a constantly growing list of developers and companies creating content and tools. The majority of the effort to date has been focused on entertainment, which includes 360 degree videos, a large number of VR games, and some more novel applications, such as VR travel. Nevertheless, new interesting business cases have been put forward, making this technology very attractive to healthcare and manufacturing industries. Companies like GE and local electric power distributors have established formal employee training programs which use VR to onboard new staff and train them in real-life situations.
Looking forward, further advancements in VR are positioned to speed up adoption and expose a much large audience to the capabilities of this technology. With the introduction and formalization of 5G cellphone communications, mobile devices will be able to handle much wider data communication pipelines making VR experiences accessible outside of offices or households with fast data connections. In addition to that, new mobile devices now include advanced VR/AR processing capabilities which make it easier for them to render virtual environments without overloading their CPUs. Smartphone based VR headsets are also picking up speed, lowering price points, and improving in quality, further advancing consumer access to this technology.
Augmented Reality, which is sometimes termed Mixed Reality, has had a much better enterprise penetration, with e-commerce and consumer goods industries being the early adopters. Some of the more successful examples of AR commercialization includes virtual showrooms and product tryouts, like Ikea’s Virtual Showroom and L’Oreal’s Makeup Genius, a virtual makeup try-on application. There is still a lot of room for growth in fields like architecture and engineering where this technology can significantly simplify manual processes such as layout visualization and design.
Marketing field has also seen a number of consumer activations that utilized augmented and virtual realities. Volvo was very successful in implementing a VR car test drive experience. Over the last year, VR has become a trademark trade show experience, with multiple product demos and showcases using this technology.
Professional training has seen quite a few interesting product launches over the last year. The military has been using VR to put soldiers into combat situations for many years. This approach results in better task preparedness and more engaging participation while learning. These advantages are also transferable to areas like warehousing and automotive, where employees can be submerged into a virtual environment that simulates the actual workplace with precise detail, including physics of how objects move around, allowing new employees to be better prepared for an actual work environment.
One of the more progressive ways VR has been used is to assist in therapy dealing with emotional and behavioral issues. Patients who are recovering from stroke have already been using virtual environments in order to help them with rehabilitation. Now, the same cognitive behavioral therapy approach is being applied to other areas, such as PTSD.
Blockchain & Smart Contracts
With cryptocurrency’s violent price swings and unscrupulous abuse of unverified financial information which fueled many ICO failures, blockchain technology has seen better days. Nevertheless, there is a lot of promise for this technology, although most of it comes with some major caveats. Financial Services and Industrial Manufacturing represent the bulk of early adopters and innovators with companies like Barclays, who is embracing blockchain in order to enhance its security and trading capabilities.
In an unlikely twist of fate, governments and public organizations have also expressed a lot of interest in this technology. Dubai has recently announced its intentions on becoming the first fully blockchain powered city.
However, the future of blockchain’s wide adoption remains unclear. Large governance hurdles, like ledger ownership and its availability, need to be solved before this technology can scale to other industries.
New Trends & Ideas
Internet of Things or IoT represents a few related technologies, but specifically, it refers to everyday devices and even clothing which have been embedded with smart capabilities. The US Olympic team used self-heating jackets made by Ralph Lauren. Things like Apple Watch and Fitbit have become ubiquitous, providing a wide array of features approaching that of standalone smart devices. There are also some unique fashion applications, like clothes that change color depending on your mood. Connecting these devices together is the next natural step in IoT evolution.
Warehouse automation, which has already been mentioned in this article is really taking shape and will likely phase out the human labor force in the next decade. Although it may not seem so, self-driving cars are distant relatives of warehouse robots. There is a significant market push to commercialize this technology and make it accessible to the general population.
Automating Data Entry can significantly improve accuracy and reduce the number of errors that may result in anything from inaccurate job forecasts to incorrect financial statements. RPA can take an existing document containing unstructured information and ingest them into a system that can then use AI to categorize the retrieved information into a more structured form. Accounting, Audit, and Tax industries are in the midst of adopting this technology.
Commerce has been one of the earlier adopters of emerging technology, using machine learning to automate marketing and merchandising processes, as well as predicting required inventory levels and customers’ shopping behavior. They continue to push the envelope by being on the frontier of new technology adoption.
In another notable example, a more progressive use of both AI and VR in a single product can dramatically reduce the number of lab mistakes which costs billions in healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. An intelligent lab assistant that can see what a lab technician is doing and alert them if a mistake was made has the potential to significantly disrupt the current three to five year new product launch lifecycle, and help ensure new life saving drugs reach consumers in a much shorter period of time.
One of the biggest challenges for organizations that have not started to think about applying new technologies to their operations is setting up strategic initiatives to start aligning their business with new ideas. The technology adoption process has seen a few frameworks and approaches over the last decade, with some of them gaining more popularity than others.