I first used a computer in 1970 — just over 50 years ago. For my undergraduate thesis in psychology, I had asked 300 students to complete a long questionnaire and when it came time to analyze the data, I realized it would take me many months using a calculator. A professor suggested I use a computer and that he was prepared to give me a couple of lessons in a programming language called Basic. A couple of weeks later, I inserted a big stack of punch cards into a mainframe card reader and hundreds of analyses were completed in 90 seconds. I decided computers could be a big thing.
A decade later, working at Bell Northern Research (Canada’s Bell Labs), I was managing a group that was researching a radical idea. We believed that everyone would use a computer connected to a vast network of networks and that computers would evolve beyond just processing data and become a communications medium. A couple of years later, I published a book showing our research and developing that idea. The book did not sell well. It was a study in bad timing and the biggest objection I received was from the media who said managers and professionals would never learn to type.
Reflecting on that half a century, I have concluded that the digital age has now entered a second era. By understanding this second era, businesses and other organizations have a chance of making sense of the bewildering onslaught on technologies and responding effectively.
The first era of the digital age spanned the rise of mainframes, minicomputers, the personal computer, fax, the internet, mobility, the World Wide Web, social media, the mobile web, the cloud and big data.
We’re now entering a second era where digital technologies permeate everything and every business process. We’re all familiar with how innovations such as machine learning, robotics, drones, cryptocurrencies, distributed ledgers, 5G, additive manufacturing, virtual reality and synthetic biology are reshaping the social and economic landscape.
When all is said and done, however, it is the convergence of three of these that is foundational — artificial intelligence, blockchain and the Internet of Things. To paraphrase Corinthians 13;13, now these three things remain: AI, blockchain and the IoT. But the greatest of these in none — it is their combination.
Call it the Trivergence.
Most managers are familiar with AI, blockchain and IoT, but a brief primer helps put the coming Trivergence into perspective.
The Internet of Things describes the growing connectivity of everyday objects and the physical world to the internet. The proliferation of wireless sensors and smart devices is giving rise to a seamless computational network that connects every living being and inanimate object on the planet into a global Internet of Everything. Today’s IoT applications range from the mundane — such as your fridge ordering milk from Amazon — to the miraculous, like internet-connected glucose monitors that remind diabetes patients to take their insulin, all while permitting physicians to monitor their condition in real-time.
Artificial intelligence describes the ability for computers to perform tasks that typically require human intelligence, including the visual perception required to recognize complex patterns and the processing power to draw inferences from massive datasets and make recommendations for humans to consider in their decision-making. Sped by the exponential rate of technological progress, AI systems are already moving beyond high-volume, low-complexity data management and analytics to execute increasingly non-routine and complex processes that have traditionally required the unique pattern recognition capabilities associated with human cognition. Increasingly sophisticated systems for speech recognition, natural language understanding and image classification, for example, are making computers capable of information-based tasks like administrative support, basic information brokering, simple software coding and even boilerplate legal work.
Blockchain is the distributed ledger technology underpinning the cryptocurrency revolution. We call it the internet of value because people can use blockchain for much more than recording crypto transactions. Distributed ledgers can store, manage and exchange anything of value — money, securities, intellectual property, deeds and contracts, music, votes and our personal data — in a secure, private and peer-to-peer manner. We achieve trust not necessarily through intermediaries like banks, stock exchanges or credit card companies but through cryptography, mass collaboration and some clever code. In short, blockchain software aggregates transaction records into batches or “blocks” of data, links and time stamps the blocks into chains that provide an immutable record of transactions with infinite levels of privacy or transparency, as desired.
Each of these foundational technologies is uniquely and individually powerful. However, when viewed together, each is transformed. This is a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
IoT will create the era of pervasive computing where billions of people, trillions of devices and countless decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) are connected to the internet. With blockchain added, connected people, devices and organizations can do far more than communicate: They can perform transactions, create markets and trust each other. Add in AI, and we can analyze and make sense of the massive datasets this connectivity generates. Subject to benign governance, we can use this power to make better decisions and take better actions that sustain the planet — all in a secure, encrypted and entity-to-entity manner.
The Trivergence and the physical world
Thanks to the Internet of Things, we have unprecedented access to new data streams that can help business leaders manage the world of physical assets, from auto parts in manufacturing supply chains to infrastructure assets like roadways, pipelines, bridges and buildings. The plethora of new sensing capabilities will unleash countless new real-time reporting opportunities. Scientists, for example, can use distributed sensor networks and the data these tools generate to revolutionize our ability to model the world and all its systems, giving us new insights into social and natural phenomena and the ability to forecast trends like climate change with greater accuracy. Increasingly timely and granular feedback loops will also revolutionize transportation, infrastructure management and international trade. For example, distributed sensors can monitor everything from hospital equipment and international cargo shipments to faults in bridges and buildings, sniff out pesticides and pathogens in food, or even “recognize” the person using them and adapt accordingly.
Pervasive computing is already powering quantum leaps in the amount of data available to public and private sector decision-makers. However, the copious amount of new data also raises new questions. For example, how will these distributed devices and assets interoperate? Where should the data reside? And, how can organizations securely access, analyze and share massive datasets? Many see the convergence of blockchain, AI and IoT as providing practical solutions for these challenges.
Autonomous vehicles are a case in point of Trivergence. The car is a thing, it’s smart and can learn and, when combined with blockchain, enables a new kind of transportation economy. The nature of blockchain makes it both easy and cost-efficient to create networks that do not require a central point of control, such as a vehicle-to-vehicle information grid.
For example, the Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative (MOBI) is a nonprofit alliance of public and private organizations working to make transportation more efficient, affordable, greener, safer and less congested using blockchain, IoT, AI and other related technologies. Backed by many of the world’s largest vehicle manufacturers, infrastructure providers and tech companies, the consortium’s focus is simple blockchain-based standards to streamline mobility transactions by promoting secure protocols for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications and payments. According to MOBI, these standards will permit any smart device — vehicles, road sensors, toll bridges or other pieces of mobility infrastructure — to have an identity, to communicate, and to participate autonomously in economic transactions as an independent agent.
Some of the earliest blockchain-based vehicle value transfer systems emerged to tackle issues associated with parking fees, toll road billing and other road-side services. In 2019, MOBI convened five major auto manufacturers including Renault, BMW, General Motors, Honda and Ford Motor Company to begin field tests for a blockchain-based vehicle identification system that will enable drivers to pay highway tolls and parking fees automatically.
The proposed system will assign digital IDs to individual vehicles and record details such as ownership information and service history on a blockchain. Data covering the lifetime of the vehicle will help to identify cars on the road, enabling their owners to purchase goods and services automatically without the specialized tags or transponders required in today’s electronic tollbooth systems.
MOBI and its partners are optimizing the blockchain-based system for connected electric vehicles. This way, transactions for tolls, car maintenance and even rest stop snacks can be recorded on the fly and then paid all at once when the vehicle is plugged into a charging station. In a recent analysis, Juergen Reers, Stephen Zoegall, and Pierre-Olivier Desmurs of Accenture predict that transactions like these will become a multi-trillion-dollar global ecosystem that enables new pay-as-you-go mobility services, with blockchain providing the infrastructure for data sharing and security across manufacturers, suppliers and other relevant parties.
Of course, autonomous vehicles and mobile transactions are just the beginning. With the Internet of Things, today’s dumb infrastructure is becoming increasingly intelligent, enabling managers to measure everything from water and natural gas flows to urban infrastructure, transportation networks and agricultural supply chains. Food retailers like Walmart, for example, are using sensors and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags attached to foodstuffs to track meat or other agricultural products from the farmer’s field to the supermarket’s shelf. Chronologically recording each step of a food item’s journey on a blockchain makes the complete history and current location of the food item along with its information (i.e., food processing methods, certifications, test data, storage temperatures, shipping details, expiration dates and, for some food products, soil quality and fertilizers) readily available in seconds.
Armed with this data, retailers can ensure the quality of supply, food inspectors can gather better data about potential health risks and consumers can make smarter purchasing decisions. Layering in artificial intelligence will yield ever more powerful possibilities to enhance food safety, productivity and innovation. Data gleaned from traceability systems, for example, could help supply chain participants streamline distribution, better manage inventory, reduce food waste and identify other efficiencies. In other words, everyone from retailers to producers to farmers could use the Trivergence as a platform for accelerating innovation in the global food system.
The Trivergence is making cities smarter, too. Skyscrapers laden with sensors and AI-enabled building automation solutions can regulate lighting and the indoor temperature according to external conditions. Additional sensors can curtail water flow as individual areas of the building approach predetermined limits. Smart traffic lights can reduce road congestion by adjusting the light cadence to real-time traffic conditions. Connected parking meters and EV charging docks can broadcast their availability to nearby drivers, while smart garbage receptacles notify waste management companies that they need emptying.
As the Trivergence intersects with the physical world, expect big economic opportunities. The deluge of data generated by transactions, medical and legal records, videos and social technologies — not to mention the sensors, cameras, bar codes and transmitters embedded in the world around us — has enormous economic potential, especially as advances in blockchain, computational power and AI help organizations transform this sea of data into new services, new innovations and new opportunities for significant operational efficiencies.
The Trivergence and the future of healthcare
Let’s have a look at Trivergence in a critical sector of our economy: healthcare. Despite the miracles of modern medicine, the fundamental model of health care has remained largely unchanged for decades. Doctors diagnose patient conditions based mainly on the signs and symptoms presented by the patients and prescribe treatment according to the experience, knowledge and intuition of the physician.
Today, advances in genomics are combining with the Trivergence to drive a shift from the one-size-fits-all medical care to a new model of personalized medicine tailored to your exact genome. AI algorithms are already enabling doctors and hospitals to better analyze data and customize their health care to the lifestyle, environment and genetic makeup of each patient. From diagnosing cancerous tumors to deciding which course of treatment will work best for an individual, AI can enhance both the speed and efficacy of care.
For example, IBM recently deployed its supercomputer Watson in medicine where it can interpret X-rays, analyze biopsies and diagnose patient conditions. Its diagnoses are not based on the career experience of a single doctor, but on its analysis of an enormous reservoir of medical data. By trolling through health records and images, population data, insurance claims data and clinical trial data, AI technologies can uncover patterns and insights that humans could not find on their own. At TidalHealth in Maryland, for instance, doctors and nurses are using Watson to quickly look up information on drug compatibility, adverse effects and special dosing requirements.
While AI supports powerful new analytic tools, IoT and blockchain are combining to create a revolutionary new model for health informatics. For several decades, the proliferation of simple health monitoring devices has empowered patients and doctors to share data and collaborate in new ways. A growing array of connected devices — digital heart monitors, Bluetooth-enabled scales, glucose monitors, skin patches and maternity care trackers, to name a few — can provide insights into both general health conditions such as weight loss and allergies, and very specific disorders such as infertility and diabetes. Several pilot studies aimed at reducing the cost of chronic care confirm that such self-monitoring technology reduces errors, improves communication with doctors and helps patients better manage their illnesses.
Physicians increasingly encourage the use of smart web-based applications and self-monitoring tools for patients so they can spend less time on routine check-ups and queries and more time delivering care to patients with acute needs. These advances, in turn, decrease emergency department trips, unnecessary doctor’s office appointments and costly home nurse visits.
The promise of IoT-enabled healthcare is to generate vast amounts of anonymous data that becomes part of the knowledge base for science, health and medicine. However, add in blockchain — with its capacity to enable secure, permissioned access to data — and it’s possible to envision the rise of a community-driven internet of health data, gathering researchers and patient communities, social networks and Internet of Things data flows into a seamless environment for wellness promotion and medical research. Adults would own and control their own data, but healthcare professionals (and perhaps family members) could access it as required with appropriate levels of privacy and security.
Medical researchers are also enthusiastic about deploying the Trivergence in their research. For example, blockchain-enabled clinical data repositories could help enable large-scale medical and pharmaceutical research efforts to co-develop early-stage technology tools, set up data standards, share disease target information, or pursue other forms of collaboration that could lift the productivity of the entire industry.
Aled Edwards has seen the benefits of such collaborations firsthand in his role as CEO of the Structural Genomics Consortium, a global biomedical research collaboration involving scientists in hundreds of universities around the world and in nine global pharmaceutical companies. Edwards cites a range of industry problems where more collaboration between big pharma, biotech firms and university researchers would yield better results: anti-bacterial research, developing more intelligent approaches assessing drug toxicology, reducing the industry’s reliance on animal testing and even tackling grand medical challenges like cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. Edwards said:
These are areas in which a purely market-driven approach is sub-optimal and where the sharing of information makes a great deal of sense.
Blockchain could also facilitate better digital rights management in medical research such as enforcing rules about who owns and can see DNA data. For example, IBM is working with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on a blockchain-based method to manage transmissions of large files related to clinical trials: Data is scrambled, transmitted and then reassembled, carefully protected throughout the process. Blockchain provides the cipher and permissioning system to maintain the integrity of the reassembled files.
As healthcare systems around the world grapple with the impact of COVID-19, the Trivergence is also arming healthcare practitioners and public health officials with new tools to fight the pandemic. In late February 2020, for example, AbCellera Biologics, a Canadian biotech firm that uses AI to develop antibody therapies, found itself on the front lines of the global response.
The Vancouver-based company, which employs about 300 people, received a blood sample from a patient who recovered from COVID-19. AbCellera screened more than five million immune cells and used its AI-powered drug discovery engine to identify those that produced the antibodies that helped the person neutralize the virus and recover from the disease. As AbCellera’s CEO Carl Hansen explained:
Our system identifies those antibodies, using AI to generate hundreds of millions of images per month. Machine learning then deconvolutes their genetic codes to find the patterns that best match the best properties for a drug. Humans can never detect all the patterns there, but an AI algorithm can. If you give it enough data, you can start to get insights that apply to multiple problems.
According to Hansen, the process identified more than 500 promising antibodies for therapeutic use and eventually led to emergency FDA approval of bamlanivimab, a highly successful neutralizing monoclonal antibody therapy marketed by AbCellera’s pharmaceutical partner Eli Lilly. The initial discovery process took less than a week.
The development of COVID-19 vaccines and antibody therapies highlights how AI-enabled breakthroughs in drug discovery are compressing years-long processes down to weeks and months. However, distributing these vaccines and therapies to every person on the planet presents yet another unprecedented public health challenge. In this global endeavor, the Trivergence is an essential force.
In March this year, Moderna and IBM announced their pilot program to trace the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines so that healthcare providers could see the status of specific vaccine batches as they traveled from manufacturer to clinic. Moderna’s vaccine must be warehoused and shipped at a temperature of minus 20 degrees Celsius, but hospitals and clinics can store it for up to one month in a regular refrigerator (2–8° C). Storing vaccines properly is critical to maintaining their efficacy and could mean the difference between life and death. With vaccine hesitancy presenting a thorny and unwelcome factor in prolonging the pandemic, trust in the safety and effectiveness of the supply chain is paramount.
IBM and Moderna are tackling this problem with an IoT- and blockchain-enabled solution that governments and healthcare providers can use to quickly and securely share data about individual vaccine batches at each step in their journey through the complex COVID-19 supply chain. Sensors embedded in shipping containers provide real-time status updates on the location and storage conditions of individual vaccine batches. Capturing the status updates on a blockchain, in turn, offers an immutable tamper-proof record to ensure all parties that vaccine supplies are being stored and handled properly, removing any logistical concerns about whether the vaccines are safe and effective.
The same traceability system for vaccines can deliver other benefits. For example, pharmaceutical companies and governments can track whether suppliers are delivering the agreed quantities of vaccines to their destinations on time. Distributors can analyze shipping data to identify potential efficiencies in the distribution system. Clinics and hospitals can anticipate supply conditions and better manage their inventories. As the pandemic wears on, the lessons from IBM and Moderna’s efforts can help streamline vaccine distribution worldwide.
Get ready for Trivergence-driven disruption
Trivergence is starting to affect every industry. In financial services, the wallet has become a smart app that can collect data and learn. On a blockchain, users can exchange, save, borrow, invest and protect this digital money peer-to-peer without the intermediation of banks. In manufacturing, 3D printers are manufacturing aircraft parts in a Boeing facility with a blockchain network facilitating all the patented files, contracting and payments peer-to-peer. Telecommunications companies are no longer negotiating complex, costly and ever-changing roaming agreements, but using blockchain-based smart contracts among providers to automate the web of payments and settlement globally.
Over time, the Trivergence will usher in a next-generation internet where nearly every animate and inanimate object on Earth generates data, a distributed ledger records and secures this data and AI analyzes the data, communicates with the objects, alerts their owners and continuously adjusts and improves the efficiency of the economy and the sustainability of its effects on the environment.
New business models enabled by this Trivergence are beginning to disrupt many industries and provide platforms for innovation in the economy for decades ahead. This second era has weighty implications for every business, government and individual, as well as technology strategy, architecture and leadership. If we can overcome the dark side — and that’s a big “if” — this Trivergence helps us reclaim our digital identities, effectively fight climate change and help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.
Don Tapscott is one of the most influential business thinkers, as well as an author, consultant and speaker on the impact of technology on business and society. In 2017, Tapscott and his son Alex Tapscott established the Blockchain Research Institute with the objective to explore blockchain strategy, use cases and implementation, among other issues. He is also the CEO of the Tapscott Group, a think tank focused on the economic and social impact of technology, innovation and media. Don is an adjunct professor at INSEAD, Chancellor Emeritus of Trent University in Canada. He has authored 16 widely read books about the digital age.
This article does not contain investment advice or recommendations. Every investment and trading move involves risk, and readers should conduct their own research when making a decision. The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.
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