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Asia and the Intelligent Edge: Riding a new wave of innovation

Takeaways from Computex 2018

A new wave of innovation is surging ahead. And, the world’s manufacturing powerhouse, Asia, is riding its crest.

The billions of appliances, gadgets, machines, and vehicles that are routinely rolling off Asian production lines are becoming smarter and connected. So too are the factories that make them.

Built with sensors, infused with artificial intelligence (AI) and enabled by machine learning (ML), these devices will push the boundaries of the Internet of Things (IoT) through the next decade and beyond. Advanced algorithms will help them see, listen, reason, predict and more, without requiring “always on” connectivity to the cloud.

This is the intelligent edge and it is based on the principle that data has gravity. In other words, the closer we move computing to a device, the faster we can move from insights to action.

You can see edge computing is any scenario where data is collected and processed inside a device or machine, allowing it to act faster than it would if had to rely on the cloud. Equipment on a factory floor can use ML and AI to anticipate when a part will break or fail. An autonomous car will be able to take evasive action when it faces a possible collision. In both cases, the milliseconds saved could be the critical difference between a safe outcome and an accident.

At this year’s Computex trade show in Taipei, we saw how the intelligent edge will be a key part of a future in which trusted, ubiquitous computing will be part of the fabric of life.

“Everything in our lives is being connected,” Nick Parker, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Consumer and Device Sales, said in a keynote address to a sell-out “Whether it is the sensors in our domestic appliances, whether it is our cars, whether it is new markets for precision agriculture, whether it is the IoT of our lives, or maybe in the experiences we have with technology.”

Nick Parker, Corporate Vice President of Consumer and Device Sales, Microsoft

With insights gleaned from these connected intelligent devices, companies will be able to reimagine business models with new product offerings, new customer experiences, and new efficiencies.

The business potential is huge, and the competition is likely to be fierce. Isaiah Cheung, Microsoft’s Vice President for Consumer and Device Sales in the Greater China Region, said the race is now on among Asian manufacturers and service providers to get into the intelligent edge game.

“New emerging device companies in our region want to infuse their products with AI,” he said. “And big, established companies are doing the same. They want AI built into the big multimillion dollar machinery in their factories to improve efficiency. And, they want to build the intelligent edge into all the consumer devices, appliances and services they export around the world.

“Just the other day, I had one big brand ask me how they could put AI into a new line of rice cookers. Another one is doing the same with its white goods. The list goes on and on.”

Isaiah Cheung, Vice President, Consumer and Device Sales, Microsoft Greater China Region

To add to this progress, Microsoft has established the  Intelligent Edge Partner Community. “Our initial focus is on fostering collaboration across our partners, providing training, and early-adopter programs,” Roanne Sones, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Core Operating System and Intelligent Edge, shared. “From a resource perspective, members receive access to documentation, specs, builds and certification details to further their intelligent edge business”.

Parker sees a new wave of business opportunities and economic progress coming off the back of the intelligent edge, with Asia being a major player.

“Asia has always been very much a center of global innovation, whether it is in a lab in Shenzhen or our partnerships across the Greater China region in terms of supply chain or our partnerships in Taiwan,”  Parker to a media conference at Computex. “We see so much of our new technology, particularly in the intelligent edge, starting here and delivering worldwide.”

Roanne Sones, Corporate Vice President of Core Operating System and Intelligent Edge, Microsoft.

Asia is also playing a major role in developing new AI technologies, with Microsoft’s research labs around the world – including in China and India – working in this space for decades. They have achieved a series of breakthroughs, using the immense computing power of the Azure cloud.

With this know-how, Microsoft has been able to infuse AI into its core products and services. It has delivered AI tools and frameworks, including cognitive, vision, spatial and object APIs, and earlier this year announced a limited preview of Project Brainwave, an architecture for deep neural net processing on the edge – all of which partners can use to enable next-generation AI applications and solutions that run on devices.

Project Brainwave – a new deep learning acceleration platform for real-time AI.

Meanwhile, intelligence is spreading across mass markets as microcontroller units (MCU) become connected. These tiny AI-enabled single-chip computers (see picture at the top of this article) now power more than 9 billion new devices around the world every year.

“An MCU is a single-chip computer that is no larger than your thumbnail,” Distinguished Engineer and Managing Director at Microsoft, Galen Hunt, told the Computex audience. “These are very tiny, very low-cost chips and enabling them with connectivity means you can turn anything into an IoT device. We are headed to a world where everything can become connected.”

As amazing as they are, these tiny chips have had one a big flaw: They were never designed to be secure. When a device is compromised, it can impact your privacy, your data and your infrastructure, and even your physical security.

“If these devices aren’t secured, who are we bringing into our most personal spaces? Who are we bringing into our homes, into our schools, into our hospitals, our offices, our factories? And what is at stake? Our data, our privacy, our infrastructure, our property, even our safety.”

This changed this year when Microsoft launched Azure Sphere, an end-to-end solution for creating highly secure, MCU-powered devices.

Galen Hunt, Distinguished Engineer and Director, Microsoft

In a recent blog, Hunt described MCU internet connectivity as “a two-way street.” “With these devices becoming a gateway to our homes, workplaces, and sensitive data, they also become targets for attacks. Look around a typical household and consider what could happen when even the most mundane devices are compromised: a weaponized stove, baby monitors that spy, the contents of your refrigerator being held for ransom.

“We also need to consider that when a device becomes compromised, it’s not just a problem for the owner, it can also become a problem for society. A device can disrupt and do damage on a larger scale.”

This is what happened with the 2016 Mirai botnet attack where roughly 100,000 compromised IoT devices were repurposed by hackers into a botnet that effectively knocked the east coast of the United States off the internet for a day.

READ: The global impact of artificial intelligence across industries

With connected MCUs built into billions of new devices every year, it is of “paramount importance” that security keeps pace with an ever-changing threat landscape.

Hunt suggests that as we look to a future, where every device will be smart or intelligent, we need to redefine what we mean by “smart”. Yes, smart devices are intuitive, insightful, and easy to use. But we need to add one more thing: Smart devices must be secure – if a device is not secure it is not smart.

This makes security essential for manufacturers in Asia and around the world. “We see an ecosystem that is very eager to deliver the products that customers need, and customers need secure products,” he said adding that Azure Sphere makes it easy for manufacturers to create smart/intelligent products that are innately secured.

READ: Unlocking the Economic Impact of Digital Transformation in Asia Pacific

ALSO READ: Microsoft’s AI Blog