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Industry 4.0 – Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Part III

The FIWare Platform at the Hannover Messe showing its potential to support Industry 4.0. Credit: FiWare Foundation

Production processing (not all of them but a growing number) are evolving in the direction of autonomous systems looking out for opportunity to deliver and ready to change their offer to meet the potential market. The designer remains a very important piece in this but the separation that used to exist between the designer and the production is more difficult to pinpoint. Now design and prototyping occurs at any stage and continuous feedback changes the production in a continuous evolution (this has been true for software for a few years now). Actually, I am also doing design and prototyping in the shop, based on requirements from my clients (and a few of them has started to design their own appliances from their couch and managed to get the final product according to their design by interacting with various producers in the value chain).

The name of the game has become the consolidation of frameworks and platforms upon which a great variety of products and services can be created.

The European Commission has invested quite a bit of money, as an example, on the FiWare platform. This has been used to make service creation, deployment and management in smart cities more efficient (reusability, faster deployment…) but at the same time FiWare can be seen as an Industry 4.0 example. It can evolve in the direction of support to autonomous service creation.

The existence of such a platform is acknowledged even in my shop. Knowing of its existence, functionalities and accessibility, allows me to create appliances that take advantage of it. A fridge can interact with the Smart Grid to synchronise its compressor use of power with the grid. Yes, having one fridge doing that has no impact but there are hundreds of thousands of them and this can make a difference. And what about the electric cars plugged in the mains? Each one is tapping 26KW from the grid, a thousands of them means 26MW…
A customer asked me some time ago to have his fridge accessing the power in his car battery that in turns was storing power produced during daytime by its photovoltaic roof. Clearly the fridge, and the overall systems, needs to be smart enough to avoid drawing too much power from the car battery, and this in turns needs to take into account driving habits, weather conditions and much more. Actually, so much more that it would be too complex to design as a set of rules. What you need is the self-orchestration of different autonomous systems each one exposing its features and requirements and each one adapting to the changing context.

In the near future this complexity may be managed at the point of sale and at the point of use by the appliance itself.

The assumption is that the appliance becomes a full autonomous system that is able to auto-adapt its behaviour based on the context. This latter includes the space in which it operates, the other “occupants” of the space –like other appliances as well as people!- and the goal that has been set. This latter is still my turf, and the reason why shoppers will still come to shop by me. Sure, the end user will be able to define the goals, as well as change them as need arises, but the vast majority of users will still prefer to have a trusted third party (meaning somebody they can blame!) to take the task for them. The appliance, once provided with the goal and aware of its context, may –autonomously- proceed to enhance itself to better fit the activities required. The shopper has become, thanks to this autonomous appliance, an “Omnichannel shopper” in the sense that it buys through a single channel that in turns access the required channels. Interestingly the shopping is, in a way done through the ambient of the shopper. In this case it is done via the appliance itself. Of course this is pretty convenient but at the same times it opens up  a can of worm. How do you trust an object to do shopping (or “execute the shopping”) on your behalf? This way of acquiring products (as well as services) hides quite a bit from your perception. On the other hand, this is typical with autonomous system, just because they are autonomous you don’t know what they are doing and you have to trust them.  When a pilot flies with IFR (Instrument Flying Rules) she has to trust the plane (an autonomous systems) when you activate Roomba (the vacuum cleaner) you are trusting it to do the cleaning in a proper way.

In the future your Roomba may decide that given the new carpet you placed in the living room it would be better off in buying a new software app to optimise the cleaning and as it is trying it out it might, autonomously, provide feedback to the provider and change the periodic maintenance contract because of the expected different wear.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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