Which emerging technologies have the greatest economic potential?

7 Dec 2018

Prof Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli at ICT 2018. Image: Digital Single Market/YouTube

Speaking at ICT 2018, Prof Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli outlined how European innovators can capitalise on the key digital technologies of the future.

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ICT 2018 has just wrapped up in Vienna, Austria. The international research and innovation event welcomed delegates involved in the digital transformation of society and industry, gathering them to share their experience and vision of Europe in the digital age.

The agenda of the conference – as well as the projects and start-ups showcased at the exhibition – reflected the European Union’s priorities in the digital revolution or evolution (whichever way you see it).

The schedule of influential speakers included Prof Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, an Italian professor who has been living and working in the US since the ’70s. At UC Berkeley in California, he is chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences and has built up a reputation over decades in academic research and in business as co-founder of two companies involved in electronic design automation.

‘In the future, we’ll have to worry more about the east than the United States’

Vincentelli presented a keynote during the ICT 2018 session titled ‘Key Digital Technologies for the Future of Europe’. In her introduction to the session, Lucilla Sioli identified these key digital technologies (KDTs) in the technology stack as microelectronics, photonics and software systems.

Sioli heads a unit at the European Commission Directorate-General for Communications, Networks, Content and Technology (DG Connect), which monitors trends and performance in the digital economy. But it was Vincentelli’s perspective from the heart of the US tech scene that led this session’s discussion.

Vincentelli was challenged with answering the question of whether Europe can compete in KDTs, particularly with the US. However, he opened with the observation that this question suffered from a limited worldview. “In the future, we’ll have to worry more about the east than the United States,” he said.

Trillion-dollar potential

Noting increasing investment in the transformation of industry, Vincentelli went on to identify the areas presenting trillion-dollar economic potential. These were the internet of things (IoT), cloud, advanced robotics, and autonomous and near-autonomous vehicles.

Vincentelli also made the point that the largest electronics company in the world – and the world’s first ever trillion-dollar company – is Apple. And, while Apple does many things, it is chiefly seen as a smartphone maker.

The reason Apple is top of the world, Vincentelli explained, is because the connection of mobile technology to core infrastructure is the key economic battleground.

‘The social sciences have to come in very heavily in what we do with these technologies’

The next stage for technology, said Vincentelli, is replacing core technology with “invisible” tech such as the cloud and IoT sensors. This shift towards invisible tech will create a “sensory swarm” with sensors even entering our bodies.

By 2025, Vincentellli said, there will be 1,000 devices per person, but they won’t be the handheld companions we rely on now. They will surround us, some enabling interactions via augmented reality. They will be “bio-cyber” systems.

With this oncoming blend of technology and humanity, Vincentelli noted the importance of sociological thinking in its development. “The social sciences have to come in very heavily in what we do with these technologies,” he said, giving credit to the healthy mix of humanities and tech happening in Europe.

AI coming out of hibernation

Of course, one of the most touched-on themes at the ICT 2018 conference and many more like it was artificial intelligence (AI). The seasoned professional that he is, Vincentelli has been around since the first wave of interest in AI in the ’80s. After that initial surge of attention, focus and – critically – funding from the likes of the US National Science Foundation and DARPA, there followed the “winter of AI”, marking a significant drop in both funding and research.

The AI winter came because that early technology did not – and could not – deliver on expectations, Vincentelli explained. He described how today’s algorithms aren’t much different to their ’80s forebears, but investment has been reinvigorated because of two critical components of the modern digital era: big data and increased processing power. This is what heralds a new age for AI.

Yet, still, Vincentelli is careful not to overhype this technology. AI, he said, processes information the way it does only because it is easy to compute. “There’s no magic to it.”

This gives AI specific limitations in that any foresight can only be based on past information. However vast that information is, the past is still not the future. What this means for an automated vehicle, for example, is that it is very difficult for the system to anticipate or even understand an event it has not seen. Hence the extensive testing these vehicles must undergo, not to mention the ethical questions raised (leading automotive engineers to try and solve impossible philosophical conundrums like the trolley problem).

“We can only see the past. We can infer the future from what we’ve seen,” said Vincentelli. “Artificial intelligence is a way of making sense of data.”

Speaking of neural networks, he expanded on this point. “You’re only as good as what you’ve seen before,” he said. “Change the inputs a little bit and the outcomes can change dramatically.”

Moving into microelectronics

In the microelectronics space, Intel was once the champion. That position is now being challenged, not by hot new upstarts but by established tech players moving in on this space. Apple’s A11 system-on-a-chip, for example, was singled out by Vincentelli as an industry frontrunner.

And it’s not just Apple, Vincentelli noted. Google, Facebook and others are designing their own chips because they have recognised this is a vital opportunity.

“The basic microelectronic architecture is going to be key,” said Vincentelli. And so, the race is on for the company that can build the machinery that can do these essential AI computations the best and the fastest.

Expect disruption

As Vincentelli noted, the automotive industry was not concerned when tech companies started developing autonomous vehicles. But, just like Intel now has to contend with Apple creeping into its domain, they too face disruption.

“If [these innovations] do happen, you are disrupted out of the industry,” Vincentelli warned. In the case of the automation industry, his prediction is that it will become the transport service industry, no longer creating products but delivering services.

Vincentelli also pointed to the many more industries that stand to be disrupted by autonomous cars, not forgetting the people who will be displaced as drivers. “The car will have many more sensors than we do. We cannot compete with that.”

Europe’s greatest weakness

In a rundown of Europe’s strengths and weaknesses in digital technology, Vincentelli said a major pitfall is that Europe doesn’t have what it takes to help start-ups become big next-generation companies. In the panel discussion that followed the keynote, he said, “Capital is here … What is missing is venture capitalists.”

In the US, there are plentiful former entrepreneurs becoming venture capitalists, which is something Europe needs to contend with. And it takes courage.

In developing cutting-edge technology, Vincentelli explained, not only does the company with the product have to take a risk, but the companies that become its first clients take a chance also. But, as the esteemed professor sees it, Europe is very conservative and businesses prefer to buy from established players.

In his closing message to the ICT 2018 audience, he urged those large, established companies that if they see an opportunity to invest in an exciting new technology, take it.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.