Every year, Gartner releases a list of the top 10 strategic technology trends for the year ahead, and this year’s list focused on building what Gartner Fellow David Cearley described as the “intelligent digital mesh.”
Note that in contrast to Gartner’s annual list of predictions, this list is much more oriented to things that the research firm believes CIOs and other senior IT executives should be focusing on for the coming year, with an emphasis on the budgeting and planning season many of us are now in. This is an annual list; here are the lists from last year and the year before.
Cearley said the phrase “intelligent digital mesh” not only applies to the overall direction of what Gartner thinks CIOs should be building, but also divides this year’s trends into three categories, based on each of the words.
Here are this year’s trends:
First are the trends focused on intelligence.
1. Advanced Machine Learning and AI
Cearley made it clear that the current talk about AI is about creating very well-focused systems, not general intelligence, and that what is most important is moving from an explicit programming model to an implicit one. He said this is an evolution of data science, and will result in model-driven rather than rule-driven programming. Cearley also noted how deep learning has evolved over the years and stressed that not every business will have teams creating neural networks, but that many will use tools and services created by others. One thing I thought was interesting was his belief that over the next 18 months we will see many different providers of AI services launched, and how he is concerned about “AI-washing” instead of real benefits.
2. Intelligent Apps
This includes things like intelligent operational applications, such as how McDonalds started using image recognition and machine learning to improve the production of its buns for burgers five years ago. Now there are numerous new tools.
Cearley also talked about Intelligent Apps used as advisors and assistants, such as how Memorial Sloan Kettering uses Watson as an advisor for oncology. He talked about how it hasn’t been the technology alone that has brought about improvements, but the many hours of training that has made a difference.
3. Intelligent Things
In this area, Cearley talked about consumer devices, such as Amazon Echo and Google Home; business devices, such as healthcare equipment with Google’s DeepMind looking at MRIs and smart stethoscopes; and embedded things, such as intelligence being built into switches and the like. In the long run, this will include things like autonomous vehicles and ships, as well as tractors. He said that self-driving vehicles today are just assistive technology and not fully autonomous, and that the transition to such vehicles will likely happen between 2020 and 2030. Technology won’t be the limiting factor compared to the legal and regulatory hurdles.
Cearley also mentioned robotics and talked about a Lowe’s robot—now in 19 locations—that helps customers navigate the store; as well as an increasing use of robotics in hospitality and entertainment. He talked about “collaborative intelligence” with a focus on how multiple drones or other things can work together.
Cearley next moved on to digital trends, and here he talked about a variety of areas, from augmented reality to distributed ledgers.
4. Augmented and Virtual Reality
In this area, Cearley seemed most intrigued by the idea of combining the virtual and physical worlds, particularly when it comes to engaging customers, and pointed to things like Lowe’s Holoroom and Google and Lenovo’s Project Tango plan to enable smartphones to better understand the real world. He talked about the use of this approach in simulated experiences, molecular modeling, and other healthcare therapies, as well as remote management. Cearley said he didn’t expect virtual reality would take the world by storm, but instead would be used primarily in very focused areas for the next few years.
5. Digital Twin
These refer to dynamic software models that act as digital representations of the real world, such as a simulation of an aircraft or an on-wing engine. Cearley talked about work by NASA, Siemens, and GE. He said this work takes some of the AI trends and combines it with models of the actual device. This will first be important for the Internet of Things, he said, but may also be important in creating digital entities and personas over the next 5-8 years.
6. Blockchain and distributed ledger
This technology, which grew out of bitcoin, is focused on a ledger that acts as a mechanism for adding trust in an untrusted environment. This reduces friction in business, and that’s the key value.
Among the applications he talked about are land ownership records in Colombia; tracking assets through the supply chain with companies like Wave and Skuchain; and pharmaceutical companies tracking the movement of controlled drugs. Cearley said blockchain is still very early and not very mature, so he did admit that there is still a lot to be proven. He said Gartner is very bullish on this technology in the long-term, but CIOs need to be careful deploying it.
The final category Cearley mentioned was mesh, which supports the others. He pointed out that Gartner believes there will be over 21 billion connected sensors and end-points by 2020, and more than 25 conversational AI systems deployed by 2018.
7. Conversational Systems
This is about systems that can carry on conversations via voice to do things like answer questions. Cearley said it’s important to put the person in the center of this experience and to build experiences for the user across multiple devices over time to support business processes. He called this “digital humanism” and said that this is apparent in chatbots and virtual personal assistants, as well as in appliances.
Cearley said IT leaders should approach conversational systems tactically. Today this is mostly aimed at consumer technologies, but over time, Cearley sees a potential in business applications, such as a phone that listens to you and can react to your business needs. In the long run, this will lead to “conversational plus,” in which conversational features are just part of a broad system.
8. Mesh App and Service Architecture
In the near future, Cearley talked about how apps will often be built from multiple services, including microservices, all connected by APIs. Behind all of this will be a cloud model, which will increasingly use serverless services and will be event-driven rather than driven by structured APIs.
9. Digital Technology Platforms
For this topic, Cearley started by talking about how new platforms may begin with AI-powered platforms combined with conversational bots and IoT concepts and IoT platforms. He said that while there are many vendors, in general, IT leaders need to design their own IoT platforms, perhaps leveraging some of their own commercial products. But he cautioned that none of the platforms to date are mature or complete.
10. Adaptive Security
Finally, he talked about security, which is clearly an important topic for many of the attendees here at the conference this week. Cearley focused on using machine learning and AI to look at platforms to uncover problems, saying that securing the border is no longer good enough. But, he cautioned, hackers are also using AI technology to make their products more effective.
Cearley said adaptive security is particularly important for securing the intelligent digital mesh, and he worries about security for IoT in applications like cars, wearables, and medical devices. He also noted how hard it is to close the holes in devices created years ago. [PC]