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Cyber-physical systems explained

Tue 29 Oct 2019 | Vivek Daga

Cognizant’s Vivek Daga explores how emerging intelligent systems will transform sectors and elevate existing applications

Cyber-physical Systems (CPS) are a mix of computation, networking and physical processes, in which the embedded computational algorithms and networks have the power to monitor and control the physical components.

By using a combination of machines, sensory devices, embedded computational intelligence and various communication mechanisms, CPS monitor physical elements with computer-based algorithms tied to the internet. This means they are capable of autonomously functioning based on their physical surroundings.

In light of advancements in analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and communications, there is increased demand for intelligent machines that can interact with the environment around them, such as driverless cars which monitor and communicate with their surroundings, and smart appliances that optimise energy consumption. CPS are stimulating significant changes in quality of life and forming the basis of smart infrastructure, products, and services.

As this kind of technology continues to become more integrated into our everyday lives, here are four areas of CPS we can expect to come to the fore.

All for one and one for all – swarm intelligence

Swarm intelligence is an emerging field in AI that combines the power of many ‘minds’ into one, allowing the overall system to be smarter, faster, more insightful and creative. The key characteristics of a swarm system include autonomy, flexibility, co-operation, scalability and de-centralised control. In other words, all individual robots work towards one goal, for and with each other.

The advent of communication networks like 5G will form the foundational infrastructure for swarm capabilities by allowing seamless interaction and data transfer among members of the swarm. In the future, these swarms will also be able to complete tasks that are considered almost impossible now, such as rescue operations in dangerous situations or environments. In this instance, swarms can map unknown areas in real-time whilst people are moving to alert them to upcoming dangers or help map their route.

Distance will no longer matter

The tactile internet is envisaged to be the next generation of connectivity that allows remote, real-time physical interactions over networks. Once fully developed, it will have a transformational impact on communication and human reach more broadly. For example, remote surgery using robotically controlled instruments could be routinely used by surgeons, meaning that access to healthcare is less dependent on location.

However, technological developments at both the network and application levels are required for these scenarios to become a reality. This includes the maturity of 5G for efficient data transfer along with other technologies like robotics, augmented and virtual reality, automation and AI, which would play a role at the application level.

Bringing AI and ML closer to the point of action

With edge devices – pieces of hardware that control data flow at the boundary between two networks – becoming more powerful, miniaturised and inexpensive, there is an opportunity to bring AI, machine learning (ML) and real-time decision making closer to where data is produced.

This involves building geo-distributed models that are privacy-aware and adapting decision-making algorithms based on context. Edge computing systems will form the basis for the smooth functioning of CPS, especially in time-sensitive tasks where even milliseconds matter, such as remote robotic surgeries or self-driving cars. They provide the much-needed, real-time insights to these systems so that they can operate and adapt in real-time.

Open, yet protected

The Internet of Things (IoT) and smart devices have become an inseparable part of our everyday lives and many physical devices and everyday objects are now connected. In fact, according to IHS Markit there will be more than 125 billion connected devices globally by 2030.

However, as an increasing number of devices is integrated into enterprise networks, it is important to ensure that the existing systems are ready to yield the expected benefits and minimise risk. For example, as more and more devices become connected to one another, there is a larger attack surface, meaning the risk of a cyber-incident increases.

Securing against such vulnerabilities would involve building middleware that facilitates secure integration of legacy and IoT systems in enterprise networks that learn automatically over time. This will transform the way threats are perceived and handled in enterprise networks, as the trend of wearing your own devices (WYOD) accelerates.

While the possibilities of CPS are seemingly endless, industry and policymakers will have to focus on the dual agenda of delivering transformational products and services, while ensuring they take ethical and security ramifications into consideration.

Looking Ahead

Whether new advances in technology fill us with excitement or dread, the fact is that the physical aspects of our lives are only going to become more integrated into the virtual world. With the likes of swarm intelligence, the tactile internet and edge computing becoming increasingly advanced, the technology around us is simply becoming smarter and significantly more insightful.

It is safe to say that humans are facing a long-standing period of disruption. There is no denying or avoiding the growing concern on how this could ultimately affect our lives, whether with the likes of Amazon’s Alexa and Siri’s ‘always on’ approach, or the increasing cyber threat landscape that puts our personal data at significant risk. Realistically, the only way to remain one step ahead is to embrace our digital future.

Experts featured:

Vivek Daga

Vice President and Country Head UK and Ireland


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