What is Digital?

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Revolution

If you are not working on a “Digital” project, the hype that surrounds the whole concept of Digital and that is bombarding business and IT professions appears off-putting to say the least. But it would be wrong to ignore it. The Digital Transformation programmes that many organisations are embarking on are affecting business across all industry and government sectors. There is no doubt that it also affects people in their daily lives.

That sounds like yet another hype-fuelled statement intended to get the attention. It is attention grabbing, but it’s also true. The scope of Digital[1] is growing to encompass the entirety of IT related disciplines and business that depends on it: that is – all business.

It is becoming clear that the scope and scale of Digital will include all the traditional IT of the past, but when fully realised it will include the following too:

  • The IoT– every device of interest or value in the world will become connected; sensors of all types and purpose will be connected – by the billion – to the internet.
  • Autonomous vehicles – cars, planes, ships, drones, buses will become commonplace in the next ten years or so. Each will be a “place on the move”, fully connected and communicating with its environment.
  • Our home, workplace, public and private spaces will be connected. Our mobile, portable or wearable devices will interact with their environment and each other – without human intervention.
  • Robots will take over more and more physical tasks and make some careers obsolete and humans redundant. Robots will clean the city, fight our wars and care for the elderly.
  • Software in the form of ‘bots’ will be our guardian angel and a constant irritant – notifying us of the latest offers and opportunities as we traverse our Smart Cities[2].
  • The systems we use will be increasingly intelligent, but AI won’t be limited to corporates. Voice control may well be the preferred user-interface on many devices in the home and our car.
  • The operations or ‘Digital Storm’ of commerce, government, medicine, the law and warfare will be transformed in the next few years. The lives of mid-21st century citizens could be very different from ours.

Motivation

Still not convinced that Digital will change the world we live in? The suggested scale of change is overwhelming. Why is this happening? Is it hype or is it truly the way the world is going?

The changes that are taking place really are significant because it appears that this decade – the 2010’s – are the point at which several technological and social milestones are being reached. This decade is witness to some tremendous human and technological achievements.

  1. One third of the world is connected; there are plans to connect the remaining two-thirds[3]
  2. The range of small devices that can be assembled into useful things has exploded. Their costs are plummeting.
  3. Local and low power networking technologies can connect these devices.
  4. Artificial Intelligencewhich has promised so much for so many years is finally delivering in the form of Machine Learning.
  5. Virtual and Augmented Reality-based systems are coming. Sony VR launched (13/10/2016) to over 1.8million people and Samsung VR starts at under $100.
  6. Robotics, drone technology and 3D printing are now viable and workable whilst falling in cost.

Almost all businesses have committed to transform themselves using these technological advances – at speed – and they are calling it Digital Transformation.

Ambition

If you talk to people working in leading/bleeding edge Digital projects, it is obvious that the ambition of these projects is unprecedented. The origin of these projects can be traced to some critical, but dateless assumptions being blown away. It’s easy to imagine some Digital expert convincing their client to do some blue-sky thinking for their latest and greatest project. “The rules of the game are changed” they might advise:

  • There need be no human intervention in the interactions of your prospects and customers and your systems[4].
  • Your sales and marketing messages can be created, sent to customers, followed up and changed almost instantly.
  • You have the full range of data from the smallest locale to global in all media formats at your disposal.
  • Autonomous drones, trucks and cars can transport products, materials and people.
  • Physical products need not be ordered, held in stock and delivered at all – 3D printing might remove those constraints.
  • And so on.

Systems of Systems and Ecosystems

According to NASA the Space Shuttle[5] – with 2.5 million parts and 230 miles of wire – is (or was) the most complex machine ever built by man. With about a billion parts, a Nimitz class supercarrier[6] is somewhat more complex. Of course, it comprises many, many machines that together comprise the super-complex system of systems – the modern aircraft carrier.

A supercarrier has hundreds of thousands of interconnected systems and with its crew of 5-6,000 people could be compared to an average town afloat. Once at sea, the floating town is completely isolated except for its radio communications with base and other ships.

The supercarrier is comparable to what people are now calling Smart Cities. Wikipedia suggests this definition[7]:

“A smart city is an urban development vision to integrate multiple information and communication technology (ICT) and IoT  solutions in a secure fashion to manage a city’s assets – the city’s assets include, but are not limited to, local departments’ information systems, schools, libraries, transportation systems, hospitals, power plants, water supply networks, waste management, law enforcement, and other community services.”

The systems of a Smart City might not be as complex as those of an aircraft carrier, but in terms of scale, the number of nodes and endpoints within the system might be anything from a million to billions.

A smart city is not just bigger than an aircraft carrier – it also has the potential to be far more complex. The inhabitants and many of the systems move in the realm of the city and beyond. They move and interact with each other in unpredictable ways. On top of that, the inhabitants are not hand-picked like the military; crooks, spies and terrorists can usually come and go as they please.

Unlike a ship – isolated at sea, the smart city is extremely vulnerable to attack from individuals and unfriendly governments and is comparatively unprepared for attack.

But it’s even more complicated than that.

Nowadays, every individual carries their own mobile system – a phone at least – with them. Every car, bus and truck might be connected. Some will be driverless. Every trash can, streetlight, office building, power point, network access point is a Machine to Machine (M2M) component of a Digital Ecosystem which has been defined thus:

“A Digital Ecosystem is a distributed, adaptive, open socio-technical system with properties of self-organisation, scalability and sustainability inspired from natural ecosystems”[8].

Systems of Every Scale

The picture I’ve been painting has probably given you the impression that the Digital systems being now architected and built are all of terrifying scale. But my real point is this: The scale of Digital ranges from the trivial to the largest systems mankind has ever attempted to build.

The simplest system might be, for example, a home automation product – where you can control the heating, lighting, TV and other devices using a console, your mobile phone or office PC. The number of components or nodes might be ten to thirty. A medium complexity system might be a factory automation, monitoring and management system where the number of components could be several thousand. The number of nodes in a Smart City will run into the millions.

The range of systems we now deal with spans a few dozen to millions of nodes. In the past, a super-complex system might have hundreds of interconnected servers. Today, systems are now connected using services or microservices – provided by servers. In the future, every node on a network – even simple sensors – is a server of some kind and there could be millions of them.

Systems with Social Impact

It might seem obvious to you now, but there is no avoiding the fact that Digital systems almost certainly have a social impact on a few, many or all citizens who encounter them. There are potentially huge consequences for us all as systems become more integrated with each other and with the fabric of society.

The scary notion of Big Brother[9] is set to become a reality – systems that monitor our every move, our buying, browsing and social activities – already exist. Deep or Machine Learning algorithms generate suggestions of what to buy, where to shop, who to meet, when to pay bills. They are designed to push notifications to us minute by minute.

Law enforcement will be a key user of CCTV, traffic, people and asset movement and our behaviours. Their goal might be to prevent crime by identifying suspicious behaviour and controlling the movement of law enforcement agents to places of high risk. But these systems have the potential to infringe our civil liberties too.

The legal frameworks of all nations embarking on Digital futures are some way behind the technology and the vision of a Digital Future that some governments are now forming.

In the democratic states, civil liberties and the rules of law are very closely monitored and protected. In non-democratic or rogue states, there may be no limit to what might be done.

Ecosystems of Ecosystems

The span of Digital covers commerce, agriculture, health, government, the media in its various forms and the military; it will affect the care, travel, logistics, and manufacturing industries. There isn’t much that Digital won’t affect in one way or another.

A systems view does not do it justice – it seems more appropriate to consider Digital systems as ecosystems within ecosystems.

This text is derived from the first chapter of Paul’s book, “Digital Assurance”. If you want a free copy of the book, you can request one here.

[1] From now on I’ll use the word Digital to represent Digital Transformation, Projects and the wide range of disciplines required in the ‘Digital World’.

[2] See for example, http://learn.hitachiconsulting.com/Engineering-the-New-Reality

[3] Internet.org is a Facebook-led organisation intending to bring the Internet to all humans on the planet.

[4] Referred to as ‘Autonomous Business Models’.

[5] http://spaceflight.nasa.gov/shuttle/upgrades/upgrades5.html

[6] http://science.howstuffworks.com/aircraft-carrier1.htm

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_city

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_ecosystem

[9] No, not the reality TV show. I mean the despotic leader of the totalitarian state, Oceania in George Orwell’s terrifying vision, “1984”.

 

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