How do we infuse greater intelligence and adaptability into our physical world and everyday lives? That’s a question that will increasingly define the balance of this decade, especially as organizations look to take on challenges like climate change, public safety, increased geopolitical tensions, and population health.
Beginning a decade ago, many cities around the world, trying to better address increasing flood risk, began installing “smart sewer” systems. These sewer systems rely on advanced sensors, data models, and AI algorithms — all carefully architected together — to autonomously monitor and assess in real time the dynamic conditions of extreme weather events. When and where the AI tells them it’s appropriate, these smart sewers activate gates to redirect threatening water flows away from populated areas and toward spare storage capacity in the sewer system network.
In similar ways, we’re making everything from facilities, campuses, cars, and even entire city-wide systems smarter and more autonomous by embedding in them robust digital capabilities — in effect, seizing even greater control over them with unprecedented precision.
Federal Technology Vision 2022: Programmable world
Chris Copeland shares a summary of Federal Technology Vision 2022’s Trend 2: Programmable World.
Today, we see a fascinating twist to that model emerging: we are programming our environments to interface and interact smartly, not just with the physical world around them, but with us as individuals — and we’re doing it in a far more personalized and interconnected way.
In one telling example of this, McDonald’s installed AI-enabled digital menu boards at drive-thru locations across the U.S. as part of a $6 billion refresh. The menu offerings on these digital boards change from customer to customer to dynamically reflect local menu trends, time of day, weather, current restaurant traffic, and suggestions that would pair well with what the customer has already ordered.
The investment appears to be paying off. Customers use the boards to customize orders and see items suggested to them based on what they have already ordered. For its part, McDonald’s is seeing larger average orders, higher overall revenue, and shorter wait times.
of federal leaders believe that leading organizations will push the boundaries of the virtual world, increasing the need for persistent and seamless navigation between the digital and physical worlds.
Welcome to the programmable world
Going forward, attributes such as control, customization, and automation – things taken for granted in software – will be increasingly enmeshed into the environment around us. People will have unprecedented ability to command the world to meet their own individual needs, deciding what they see, interact with, and experience with greater ease and fidelity than ever before. And enterprises will build and deliver these experiences, as well as reinvent their own operations for a new kind of world. Simply put, the world is becoming a place that can be shaped as broadly, as personally, and as often as our experiences on the internet – fundamentally changing the way we live.
In these scenarios, digital capabilities are woven into the very fabric of the world, making the physical world as smart, configurable, and programmable as we expect the digital one to be. People have more information about their real-world surroundings, along with greater context, and they can frictionlessly interact with their environment in novel and more efficient ways.
We’ve been building toward the programmable world for years: Digital technologies have proliferated across the physical world for over a decade. We’ve put cameras everywhere and filled our homes with smart devices and microphones. Now, advances in natural language processing, computer vision, and edge computing are amplifying the capabilities of those devices, freeing digital interactions from being trapped and turning them into an ambient and persistent layer across our environment.
The global 5G rollout adds more fuel to the fire, setting the stage for the further proliferation of low-power, low-latency connected devices. And researchers across enterprise and academia alike are working on even more transformative technologies, like augmented reality glasses, new methods of manufacturing, new kinds of smart materials, and programmable matter.
As we enter a new era of digital change, our belief is that it is helpful to think of the metaverse as a continuum: a spectrum of digitally enhanced worlds, realities, and business models that will revolutionize nearly all aspects of life and business in the next decade by accelerating collaboration in virtual spaces, augmented physical places, and a blend of both. Moreover, it will create new lines of business and transform interactions between citizens and government agencies.
To deliver on the metaverse’s full potential, we need to replicate the best aspects of the virtual world within our physical environments.
This requires having persistent, virtual environments that interface and interact with our surroundings; that employ intelligent, adaptive systems, such as digital twins that can accurately model physical objects and their interactions; and that bend our surroundings to our individual needs.
Consider, for example, how frictionless shopping technology is revolutionizing the experience of going to the store. Customers simply scan an app on their phone or a credit card upon entry and proceed to take what they want off the shelves. Computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning AI algorithms, all bound together by IoT connectivity — many of the same technologies as those used in driverless cars — collaborate to understand exactly what each customer takes and then charges that customer’s card or account and sends them an electronic receipt when they walk out the door.
The biggest vendor in the contactless shopping space is Amazon, whose Just Walk Out technology is being used by numerous store chains, including Amazon’s own Amazon Go and Whole Foods. But other vendors, like San Francisco-based Zippin and Israeli startup Trigo, are also contributing to this revolutionary trend taking hold throughout the retail industry. And this isn’t stopping with retail stores. Similar integrated solutions are reducing points of friction and adding greater personalization, adaptivity, and efficiencies to container yards and even Disney theme parks.
So how will this emerging programmable world affect federal agencies?
The idea of overlaying integrated digital capabilities across our surroundings to make employees, their work environments, and even the materials they work with more effective and adaptive presents enormous opportunities for federal agencies. Most (94%) federal leaders believe that programming the physical environment will be a strategic competency with 69% saying that augmented reality will disrupt government over the next three years. Consider these potential use cases:
1. Smart workers
Agencies across the federal government run highly specialized environments and equipment in serving their missions and operations. Think, for example, about federal research labs, hospitals, shipyards, logistics and distribution centers, mail processing facilities, space centers, satellite ground stations, and air traffic control towers.
All of these operations and the equipment supporting them require extensive training and expertise for the federal and contractor staffs who run, maintain, and repair them. What if the information that those people need to do this was available to them when and where they needed it as they interact in those specialized work environments?
In fact, this is already happening. So-called connected-worker platforms deliver frontline workers augmented work instructions on digital devices — such as tablets, mobile phones, or even smart glasses — as they move about their workspaces and perform workflows or maintenance activities to improve productivity, quality, and standardization. These platforms guide workers with visual aids, augmented reality (AR) or mixed reality, and contextual information. Some offer voice-activated, hands-free instructions through industrial headsets to maximize safety. Some have remote assist functionality that can connect offsite Journeymen- or Craftsman-level experts with on-site workers who have less expertise via AI Bots and AR.
When combined with an AI capability, a connected worker platform can intelligently customize each work procedure based on the individual’s proficiency and expertise level.
To capture needed data, many of these platforms integrate with an organization’s manufacturing and supply chain software systems, such as ERP systems, manufacturing execution systems, supply chain suites, and advanced planning and scheduling (APS) software, and also with environmental health and safety (EHS) software for increased worker safety.
The most anticipated AR use cases
U.S. federal executives identify the following as the most anticipated AR use cases over the next three years.
2. Smart environments
Many people are already aware of smart facilities, such as buildings programmed to autonomously turn off lights and adjust temperature controls after business hours. But today, we have entered an era where we can create life-like digital twins of facilities or equipment that we can then manipulate and interact with to explore options and run planning scenarios.
Air Force leaders at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, Fla., have created a digital twin of the entire base to help it plan better how to rebuild after the devastating destruction caused by Hurricane Michael in 2018. In March 2022, the base unveiled its new Hololab, which is the portal to access Tyndall’s digital twin and conduct “what if” scenarios and explore how new designs might look.
This will help base planners and engineers locate and design new flight line facilities that will support three new squadrons of F-35 Lightning II strike fighters, scheduled to begin arriving in late 2023. With the digital twin, they can explore various design options so they can make support operations more efficient. They also can use the digital twin to better understand security vulnerabilities and conduct resilience planning. For example, planners and engineers can use the digital twin to perform storm surge modeling and simulate the effects of another big storm on the base’s critical infrastructure or conduct a range of active-shooter scenarios to optimize preparation and response planning.
When digital twins are enhanced with real-time data streaming, the use cases expand further. Real-time digital twins, for example, can track every vehicle in a fleet to identify maintenance issues or schedule issues as they emerge. When monitoring sensor data streaming from individual nodes in a power grid, a digital twin can detect issues, such as an impending failure that could cause a fire or outage, in near real time. A real-time digital twin of a high-security facility could stream data at critical entry and exit points to detect unauthorized incursions and threats to employee safety.
By far, the federal government’s most ambitious foray into the programmable world is the military’s goal of overlaying connected modern digital capabilities atop the battlefields of the future for faster, more precise results. A Defense Department-wide effort known as Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) aims to radically improve cross-domain, joint military capability by employing innovative, connected technologies that will dramatically improve the military’s ability to “sense, make sense, and act” on the battlefield. Ultimately, JADC2 planners aim to connect innumerable battlefield and space sensors with any weapon system in any domain across the joint force, all enabled and accelerated by open architectures, open standards, and artificial intelligence. Although still in the early vision and strategy stages, the JADC2 effort will ultimately emerge as an amalgam of interconnected systems developed across the different service branches.
These capabilities also have enormous potential in advancing many other federal missions and operations, whether they concern moving people through airport security more efficiently, urban planning, improving healthcare and logistics, or delivering citizen services.
3. Smart materials
Even the materials we use to manufacture things or wear on our bodies can be programmed to respond to particular interactions. Today, we have entire classes of smart materials that are designed to modify some of their properties when exposed to certain external stimuli, such as mechanical stress or temperature. And federal leaders are taking notice, with 89% saying smart materials have the potential to create new opportunities and drive the next generation of capabilities, properties, and form factors.
For example, a Veterans Affairs Department research team at the Advanced Platform Technology Center in Cleveland developed a bandage that applies electrical stimulation to treat chronic wounds, also known as pressure injuries, that would otherwise struggle to heal on their own. Pressure injuries are often painful for patients, slow to heal, and expensive to manage: the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality estimates the cost to treat them in the U.S. ranges from $9.1 billion to $11.6 billion per year. Veterans especially are at high risk of chronic wounds, and because many veterans live long distances from a VA medical center, treatment often requires extended hospitalizations.
The problem with chronic wounds is that the healing process often stalls. The wounds can become colonized with bacteria that form a biofilm, which delays healing. Preliminary data suggest that electrical stimulation can disrupt the biofilm, minimize infection, and promote the growth of new blood vessels, according to Dr. Kath Bogie, who led the research and development project. “The general thinking is that electrical stimulation provides the energy to promote healing in a chronic wound," Bogie said. This led her team to create a layered bandage that was embedded with a mechanism to deliver electrical stimulation, temperature sensors, and a smart chip. The top half of the smart bandage contains the electronics and battery — a separable bottom layer is the absorbent bandage, which can be used for up to seven days before being discarded and replaced, repeatedly if necessary for as long as the patient requires.
The smart bandage also records temperature readings and impedance across the wound, which inform the clinician how well the wound is healing and whether the wound is infected or potentially ischemic (suffering restricted blood flow). If the patient is remote, the chip in the bandage can even connect to the patient's phone so it can send information to the clinician for analysis and responsive treatment (that capability, however, has not yet been approved for use by VA, according to Bogie).
Bringing the programmable world to life
Merging the physical world with the digital world in ways that responsively address our needs and challenges requires that federal enterprises develop a deep understanding of three layers that comprise the programmable world: the Connected, the Experiential, and the Material.
Many are already investing in and deploying the first layer of programmable world technology, creating a connected foundation. The fifth generation (5G) of wireless technology, which lies at the heart of this connectivity, will completely transform telecommunications networks and the global digital landscape along with it due to its high speed, improved efficiency, better mobility support, high connection density, and capability to connect to many devices. The continued expansion of 5G networks will enable richer, more robust experiences and promote a greater integration of IoT-based devices for a mass machine communication approach so that these devices can communicate and handle data without human dependencies.
Another important contributor to this connectivity layer will be the adoption of open architectures and open standards to more easily interconnect disparate systems and components. We know that when networks, systems, data, sensors, and IoT devices converge, the sum value of those assets can deliver transformational capabilities — just as Defense Department leaders anticipate with their ongoing JADC2 endeavors. It will be open standards and open architectures that enable that convergence and the transformation that comes with it.
The next layer of the programmable world is experiential. This is about creating natural computer interfaces linking the physical and digital worlds. In the absence of keyboards and microphones, a focus on human-centered design can help create these connections by exploring how users’ approach and learn how to interact with new experiences, such as through the trial-and-error process of using gestures to direct complex systems. These seemingly simple interfaces must overcome numerous obstacles, such as our natural fear of looking ridiculous as well as the need to communicate back with users in an intuitive way.
The materials we use to flesh out the programmable world are also increasingly important. New generations of manufacturing and materials will bring programmability into the truly physical aspects of our environments. Advances in digital manufacturing techniques are changing how and where physical goods can be made, making on-demand and hyper customized products a reality. For instance, 3D printers can now print a much wider variety of objects, and the number of viable filament materials is growing too. This makes 3D printing – which is far better suited for highly customized and local production – increasingly attractive for today’s enterprises. Similarly, advances in digital textiles production are making textile customization easier and on-demand production increasingly possible.
A number of federal agencies are already using additive manufacturing for a wide variety of uses. For example, the Army employs it to build parts for ground vehicles that are “select readiness drivers, are obsolete, have no technical data packages, have no source of supply and are of immediate need.” The VA uses it to develop and create custom-built orthotics, prosthetics, and dental solutions.
The security imperative
Finally, across every layer of this emerging programmable world, there must be robust security embedded throughout. After all, with this degree of connectivity — including the increased connectivity of IT and OT (operational technology) networks — comes far greater degrees of vulnerability and exposure. And the stakes increase significantly when physical environments — such as power and energy networks, factory operations, transportation systems, and military bases — become extensions of our virtual worlds. Yes, the programmable world holds tremendous promise for us, but it also vastly expands the attack surface available to cyber threats, putting critical networks and infrastructures further at risk.
It must also be noted that this is a today challenge, as 65% of U.S. federal executives report that they have significantly or exponentially increased their deployment of IoT and edge devices over the past three years. In short, there must be a security-first mindset throughout as we move down this path of a more programmable world.
Security has been a factor in 5G since its inception — nevertheless, the exponential increase we will see in new devices and connections in the coming years will add far greater complexity and scale to the security challenges of today. Federal agencies and industry will need to develop comprehensive security strategies that account for resilience, communication security, identity management and security, privacy, and data integrity and protection.
Rigorous security features and protocols, using system design principles applied with a risk-based mindset, will need to extend from the networks to the IoT devices — and even the supply chains of those devices — to the data itself. Everything from the IoT devices to the cloud service providers must be rigorously vetted. And much thought must be given to the integration of these many components from a security perspective.
Holistic, smartly architected security frameworks, such as zero trust, will be critical in protecting these hyper-connected environments. Traditional approaches focused on establishing a strong perimeter to keep out bad actors no longer work. Passwords and firewalls are no longer sufficient. In a programmable world, perimeters become less and less obvious or obsolete all together. With zero trust, every connection is considered a potential threat until it’s verified not to be. Even for a project as ambitious as DoD’s JADC2, zero trust is a critical ingredient.
But security is not simply a matter of putting the right technical solutions in place — there are also educational and cultural issues that federal agencies must address. New risk-aware practices, protocols, incentives, and mindsets must be brought into play.
What’s increasing the value of AR/VR
U.S. federal executives identify the following factors (exclusive of lower cost) for increasing the value of AR and VR technologies.
Improved knowledge of the technology
Improved ease-of-use/accessible design
Enhanced data security
The arrival of the programmable world will be the most disruptive turning point for people, agencies, and businesses in decades. We’re about to live in environments that can physically transform on command, that can be customized and controlled to an unprecedented degree, and that can change faster and more often than we have ever seen before. With these environments, a new arena for government innovation will be born. Will you be ready?
To learn more about how the Programmable World will affect federal agencies — including potential challenges that federal leaders should look out for and steps that agencies can take to prepare — please read the full PDF.
The annual Technology Vision takes a systematic look across the enterprise landscape to identify evolving technology trends with the highest possibility to disrupt businesses, governments, and societies over the next three years.
The full report
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