7 Surprising Innovations For The Future Of Computing

Dan Wellers

Moore’s Law posits that the number of transistors on a microprocessor — and therefore their computing power — will double every two years. It’s held true since Gordon Moore came up with it in 1965, but its imminent end has been predicted for years. As long ago as 2000, the MIT Technology Review raised a warning about the limits of how small and fast silicon technology can get.

The thing is, Moore’s Law isn’t really a law. It’s more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moore didn’t describe an immutable truth, like gravity or the conservation of momentum. He simply set our expectations, and lo, the chip makers delivered accordingly.

In fact, the industry keeps finding new ways to pack more power onto tinier chips. Unfortunately, they haven’t found ways to cut costs on the same exponential curve. As Fast Company reported in February 2016, the worldwide semiconductor industry is no longer planning to base its R&D plans for silicon chips around the notion of doubling their power every two years, because it simply can’t afford to keep up that pace in purchasing the incredibly complex manufacturing tools and processes necessary. Besides, current manufacturing technology may not be able to shrink silicon transistors much more than it already has. And in any event, transistors have become so tiny that they may no longer reliably follow the usual laws of physics — which raises questions about how much longer we’ll dare to use them in medical devices or nuclear plants.

So does that mean the era of exponential tech-driven change is about to come to a screeching halt?

Not at all.

Even if silicon chips are approaching their physical and economic limits, there are other ways to continue the exponential growth of computing performance, from new materials for chips to new ways to define computing itself. We’re already seeing technological advances that have nothing to do with transistor speed, like more clever software driven by deep learning and the ability to achieve greater computing power by leveraging cloud resources. And that’s only the tiniest hint of what’s coming next.

Here are a few of the emerging technologies that promise to keep computing performance rocketing ahead:

  • In-memory computing. Throughout computing history, the slowest part of processing has been getting the data from the hard disks where it’s stored to random access memory (RAM), where it can be used. A lot of processor power is wasted simply waiting for data to arrive. By contrast, in-memory computing puts massive amounts of data into RAM where it can be processed immediately. Combined with new database, analytics, and systems designs, it can dramatically improve both performance and overall costs.
  • Graphene-based microchips. Graphene — one molecule thick and more conductive than any other known material (see The Super Materials Revolution) — can be rolled up into tiny tubes or combined with other materials to move electrons faster, in less space, than even the smallest silicon transistor. This will extend Moore’s Law for microprocessors a few years longer.
  • Quantum computing. Even the most sophisticated conventional computer can only assign a one or a zero to each bit. Quantum computing, by contrast, uses quantum bits, or Qubits, which can be a zero, a one, both at once, or some point in between, all at the same time. (See this explainer video from the Verge for a surprisingly understandable overview.) Theoretically, a quantum computer will be able to solve highly complex problems, like analyzing genetic data or testing aircraft systems, millions of times faster than currently possible. Google researchers announced in 2015 that they had developed a new way for qubits to detect and protect against errors, but that’s as close as we’ve come so far.
  • Molecular electronics. Researchers at Sweden’s Lund University have used nanotechnology to build a “biocomputer” that can perform parallel calculations by moving multiple protein filaments simultaneously along nanoscopic artificial pathways. This biocomputer is faster than conventional electrical computers that operate sequentially, approximately 99 percent more energy-efficient, and cheaper than both conventional and quantum computers to produce and use. It’s also more likely to be commercialized soon than quantum computing is.
  • DNA data storage. Convert data to base 4 and you can encode it on synthetic DNA. Why would we want to do that? Simple: a little bit of DNA stores a whole lot of information. In fact, a group of Swiss researchers speculate that about a teaspoon of DNA could hold all the data humans have generated to date, from the first cave drawings to yesterday’s Facebook status updates. It currently takes a lot of time and money, but gene editing may be the future of big data: Futurism recently reported that Microsoft is investigating the use of synthetic DNA for secure long-term data storage and has been able to encode and recover 100 percent of its initial test data.
  • Neuromorphic computing. The goal of neuromorphic technology is to create a computer that’s like the human brain—able to process and learn from data as quickly as the data is generated. So far, we’ve developed chips that train and execute neural networks for deep learning, and that’s a step in the right direction. General Vision’s neuromorphic chip, for example, consists of 1,024 neurons — each one a 256-byte memory based on SRAM combined with 3,000 logic gates — all interconnected and working in parallel.
  • Passive Wi-fi. A team of computer scientists and electrical engineers at the University of Washington has developed a way to generate Wi-fi transmissions that use 10,000 times less power than the current battery-draining standard. While this isn’t technically an increase in computing power, it is an exponential increase in connectivity, which will enable other types of advances. Dubbed one of the 10 breakthrough technologies of 2016 by MIT Technology Review, Passive Wi-fi will not only save battery life, but enable a minimal-power Internet of Things, allow previously power-hungry devices to connect via Wi-fi for the first time, and potentially create entirely new modes of communication.

So while we may be approaching the limits of what silicon chips can do, technology itself is still accelerating. It’s unlikely to stop being the driving force in modern life. If anything, its influence will only increase as new computing technologies push robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, nanotechnology, and other world-shaking advances past today’s accepted limits.

In short, exponential growth in computing may not be able to go on forever, but its end is still much farther in the future than we might think.

Download the executive brief Computing After Silicon.

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To learn more about how exponential technology will affect business and life, see Digital Futures in the Digitalist Magazine.

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About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Digitalist Agenda: Places to Be in Spring 2018

Stephanie Overby

The leading edge of the digital economy is wherever innovators gather.

Mar 22
Manufacturing Transformation

Stuttgart, Germany

Pete Swabey, Credit: Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s EMEA editorial director and a global tech sector leader, hosts a few manufacturing-specific roundtables throughout Europe each year. The intimate setting gives select C-level and senior management attendees the chance for give-and-take discussion about sector trends. Held in Speisemeisterei restaurant on the grounds of Stuttgart’s Hohenheim Castle, this gathering will explore how established firms can benefit from digital opportunities the same way as small upstarts and whether they can learn from digital native companies how to improve collaboration across ecosystems. Drinks precede the keynote and discussion—followed by dinner, when conversation is bound to grow more frank.


Mar 26–27
Africa CEO Forum

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Credit: WHO /L. Cipriani

This is only the second Africa CEO Forum to be hosted on the continent, held this year in the Ivorian economic capital of Abidjan. The 2017 Geneva event brought together more than 1,000 business leaders, investors, and policy makers from 70-plus countries and focused on how to better engage young people and women in business growth and innovation. This is an active networking event; organizers say 80% of participants identified or closed on new business deals last year. Expected attendees include Unilever CEO Paul Polman, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, World Health Organization director general Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Mediterranean Shipping Company CEO Diego Aponte, and NSIA Group chairman Jean Kacou Diagou. Content will be wide ranging—from macroeconomic plenary sessions, CEO interviews, industry and regional panels, investment pitches, and case studies—and centered on the theme Shaping the Future of Africa.


Apr 9–12
I-COM Global Summit

San Sebastián, Spain

Kate Sirkin, Credit: Kate Sirkin

Eighty percent of the invitation-only crowd attending this global forum for marketing data and measurement are senior leaders. The summit offers them an environment to explore case studies (more than 100 are featured), find digital ecosystem partners, and explore emerging best practices. Left brain and right brain meet to explore the theme The Reality Disruption Field at this Bay of Biscay resort town. Speakers, including Kantar Media chairman and CEO Andy Brown, Publicis Media EVP Kate Sirkin, and GroupM Analytics chief data officer and CEO Harvey Goldhersz, will discuss accelerating the pace of transformation. Pre- and post-summit activities include meetups, data science hackathons, a Basque culinary outing, and a trip to the Rioja wine region.


Apr 30–May 3
Collision

New Orleans

Credit: Collision Facebook Page

Collision organizers take umbrage at those who have called the nascent Crescent City event the new SXSW Interactive. But corporate leaders weary of the Austin routine, the Vegas CES scene, or Mobile World’s Barcelona gathering may find their tech show interest reinvigorated at this event, which is in its third year. Recent attendees said Collision hits the sweet spot between small and massive tech events, though perhaps not for long, with some 25,000 attendees expected this year. The 2017 agenda featured C-level presos from Facebook, BitMoji, Coca-Cola, and Wells Fargo, alongside talks by musician Wyclef Jean, journalist Walter Isaacson, NFL players, and NASA astronauts. In a genius bit of scheduling, Collision is wedged between the two weekends of Jazz Fest, enticing participants to come for the conference and stay for the party.


Jun 5–7
SAPPHIRE NOW

Orlando, FL

Hasso Plattner, Credit: Hasso-Plattner-Institut

Now in its 29th year, SAP’s annual conference is the elder statesman of this roundup. But SAPPHIRE NOW, co-hosted with the Americas’ SAP Users’ Group (ASUG), is all about the new, offering opportunities to learn real-world best practices from early technology adopters and to understand the latest digital business trends with keynotes from top SAP leaders—CEO Bill McDermott, executive board member Bernd Leukert, and chairman Hasso Plattner—along with innovation demos from SAP’s growing partner ecosystem, including IBM, Deloitte, Infosys, HPE, NextLabs, EY, and HCL Global Systems. The gathering always ends with an arena concert on Thursday; past headliners have included Coldplay, Muse, Jennifer Lopez, and Jon Bon Jovi.

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Opportunity Matrix: A Pragmatic Guide to the Digital Revolution

Danielle Beurteaux

Sources: Unintended Crime, Gizmodo; Zombies, The Verge; Universal Translators, BBC; Security Alerts, Bleeping Computer; Movie Robots, Gizmodo; Imposters, Mashable and Mashable; Quantum Computing, CNBC; Happy Hour, The Verge; Drones, The Verge; Cats, Tech Crunch and CryptoKitties; Transport, The Verge; Internet Addiction, Spectrum; Cyborg Bugs, Spectrum; Luggage, CNNTech; Delivery Bots, TechCrunch

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The Blockchain Solution

By Gil Perez, Tom Raftery, Hans Thalbauer, Dan Wellers, and Fawn Fitter

In 2013, several UK supermarket chains discovered that products they were selling as beef were actually made at least partly—and in some cases, entirely—from horsemeat. The resulting uproar led to a series of product recalls, prompted stricter food testing, and spurred the European food industry to take a closer look at how unlabeled or mislabeled ingredients were finding their way into the food chain.

By 2020, a scandal like this will be eminently preventable.

The separation between bovine and equine will become immutable with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, which will track the provenance and identity of every animal from stall to store, adding the data to a blockchain that anyone can check but no one can alter.

Food processing companies will be able to use that blockchain to confirm and label the contents of their products accordingly—down to the specific farms and animals represented in every individual package. That level of detail may be too much information for shoppers, but they will at least be able to trust that their meatballs come from the appropriate species.

The Spine of Digitalization

Keeping food safer and more traceable is just the beginning, however. Improvements in the supply chain, which have been incremental for decades despite billions of dollars of technology investments, are about to go exponential. Emerging technologies are converging to transform the supply chain from tactical to strategic, from an easily replicable commodity to a new source of competitive differentiation.

You may already be thinking about how to take advantage of blockchain technology, which makes data and transactions immutable, transparent, and verifiable (see “What Is Blockchain and How Does It Work?”). That will be a powerful tool to boost supply chain speed and efficiency—always a worthy goal, but hardly a disruptive one.

However, if you think of blockchain as the spine of digitalization and technologies such as AI, the IoT, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, and drones as the limbs, you have a powerful supply chain body that can leapfrog ahead of its competition.

What Is Blockchain and How Does It Work?

Here’s why blockchain technology is critical to transforming the supply chain.

Blockchain is essentially a sequential, distributed ledger of transactions that is constantly updated on a global network of computers. The ownership and history of a transaction is embedded in the blockchain at the transaction’s earliest stages and verified at every subsequent stage.

A blockchain network uses vast amounts of computing power to encrypt the ledger as it’s being written. This makes it possible for every computer in the network to verify the transactions safely and transparently. The more organizations that participate in the ledger, the more complex and secure the encryption becomes, making it increasingly tamperproof.

Why does blockchain matter for the supply chain?

  • It enables the safe exchange of value without a central verifying partner, which makes transactions faster and less expensive.
  • It dramatically simplifies recordkeeping by establishing a single, authoritative view of the truth across all parties.
  • It builds a secure, immutable history and chain of custody as different parties handle the items being shipped, and it updates the relevant documentation.
  • By doing these things, blockchain allows companies to create smart contracts based on programmable business logic, which can execute themselves autonomously and thereby save time and money by reducing friction and intermediaries.

Hints of the Future

In the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, we had no idea that the internet would become so large and pervasive, nor that we’d find a way to carry it all in our pockets on small slabs of glass.

But we could tell that it had vast potential.

Today, with the combination of emerging technologies that promise to turbocharge digital transformation, we’re just beginning to see how we might turn the supply chain into a source of competitive advantage (see “What’s the Magic Combination?”).

What’s the Magic Combination?

Those who focus on blockchain in isolation will miss out on a much bigger supply chain opportunity.

Many experts believe emerging technologies will work with blockchain to digitalize the supply chain and create new business models:

  • Blockchain will provide the foundation of automated trust for all parties in the supply chain.
  • The IoT will link objects—from tiny devices to large machines—and generate data about status, locations, and transactions that will be recorded on the blockchain.
  • 3D printing will extend the supply chain to the customer’s doorstep with hyperlocal manufacturing of parts and products with IoT sensors built into the items and/or their packaging. Every manufactured object will be smart, connected, and able to communicate so that it can be tracked and traced as needed.
  • Big Data management tools will process all the information streaming in around the clock from IoT sensors.
  • AI and machine learning will analyze this enormous amount of data to reveal patterns and enable true predictability in every area of the supply chain.

Combining these technologies with powerful analytics tools to predict trends will make lack of visibility into the supply chain a thing of the past. Organizations will be able to examine a single machine across its entire lifecycle and identify areas where they can improve performance and increase return on investment. They’ll be able to follow and monitor every component of a product, from design through delivery and service. They’ll be able to trigger and track automated actions between and among partners and customers to provide customized transactions in real time based on real data.

After decades of talk about markets of one, companies will finally have the power to create them—at scale and profitably.

Amazon, for example, is becoming as much a logistics company as a retailer. Its ordering and delivery systems are so streamlined that its customers can launch and complete a same-day transaction with a push of a single IP-enabled button or a word to its ever-attentive AI device, Alexa. And this level of experimentation and innovation is bubbling up across industries.

Consider manufacturing, where the IoT is transforming automation inside already highly automated factories. Machine-to-machine communication is enabling robots to set up, provision, and unload equipment quickly and accurately with minimal human intervention. Meanwhile, sensors across the factory floor are already capable of gathering such information as how often each machine needs maintenance or how much raw material to order given current production trends.

Once they harvest enough data, businesses will be able to feed it through machine learning algorithms to identify trends that forecast future outcomes. At that point, the supply chain will start to become both automated and predictive. We’ll begin to see business models that include proactively scheduling maintenance, replacing parts just before they’re likely to break, and automatically ordering materials and initiating customer shipments.

Italian train operator Trenitalia, for example, has put IoT sensors on its locomotives and passenger cars and is using analytics and in-memory computing to gauge the health of its trains in real time, according to an article in Computer Weekly. “It is now possible to affordably collect huge amounts of data from hundreds of sensors in a single train, analyse that data in real time and detect problems before they actually happen,” Trenitalia’s CIO Danilo Gismondi told Computer Weekly.

Blockchain allows all the critical steps of the supply chain to go electronic and become irrefutably verifiable by all the critical parties within minutes: the seller and buyer, banks, logistics carriers, and import and export officials.

The project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2018, will change Trenitalia’s business model, allowing it to schedule more trips and make each one more profitable. The railway company will be able to better plan parts inventories and determine which lines are consistently performing poorly and need upgrades. The new system will save €100 million a year, according to ARC Advisory Group.

New business models continue to evolve as 3D printers become more sophisticated and affordable, making it possible to move the end of the supply chain closer to the customer. Companies can design parts and products in materials ranging from carbon fiber to chocolate and then print those items in their warehouse, at a conveniently located third-party vendor, or even on the client’s premises.

In addition to minimizing their shipping expenses and reducing fulfillment time, companies will be able to offer more personalized or customized items affordably in small quantities. For example, clothing retailer Ministry of Supply recently installed a 3D printer at its Boston store that enables it to make an article of clothing to a customer’s specifications in under 90 minutes, according to an article in Forbes.

This kind of highly distributed manufacturing has potential across many industries. It could even create a market for secure manufacturing for highly regulated sectors, allowing a manufacturer to transmit encrypted templates to printers in tightly protected locations, for example.

Meanwhile, organizations are investigating ways of using blockchain technology to authenticate, track and trace, automate, and otherwise manage transactions and interactions, both internally and within their vendor and customer networks. The ability to collect data, record it on the blockchain for immediate verification, and make that trustworthy data available for any application delivers indisputable value in any business context. The supply chain will be no exception.

Blockchain Is the Change Driver

The supply chain is configured as we know it today because it’s impossible to create a contract that accounts for every possible contingency. Consider cross-border financial transfers, which are so complex and must meet so many regulations that they require a tremendous number of intermediaries to plug the gaps: lawyers, accountants, customer service reps, warehouse operators, bankers, and more. By reducing that complexity, blockchain technology makes intermediaries less necessary—a transformation that is revolutionary even when measured only in cost savings.

“If you’re selling 100 items a minute, 24 hours a day, reducing the cost of the supply chain by just $1 per item saves you more than $52.5 million a year,” notes Dirk Lonser, SAP go-to-market leader at DXC Technology, an IT services company. “By replacing manual processes and multiple peer-to-peer connections through fax or e-mail with a single medium where everyone can exchange verified information instantaneously, blockchain will boost profit margins exponentially without raising prices or even increasing individual productivity.”

But the potential for blockchain extends far beyond cost cutting and streamlining, says Irfan Khan, CEO of supply chain management consulting and systems integration firm Bristlecone, a Mahindra Group company. It will give companies ways to differentiate.

“Blockchain will let enterprises more accurately trace faulty parts or products from end users back to factories for recalls,” Khan says. “It will streamline supplier onboarding, contracting, and management by creating an integrated platform that the company’s entire network can access in real time. It will give vendors secure, transparent visibility into inventory 24×7. And at a time when counterfeiting is a real concern in multiple industries, it will make it easy for both retailers and customers to check product authenticity.”

Blockchain allows all the critical steps of the supply chain to go electronic and become irrefutably verifiable by all the critical parties within minutes: the seller and buyer, banks, logistics carriers, and import and export officials. Although the key parts of the process remain the same as in today’s analog supply chain, performing them electronically with blockchain technology shortens each stage from hours or days to seconds while eliminating reams of wasteful paperwork. With goods moving that quickly, companies have ample room for designing new business models around manufacturing, service, and delivery.

Challenges on the Path to Adoption

For all this to work, however, the data on the blockchain must be correct from the beginning. The pills, produce, or parts on the delivery truck need to be the same as the items listed on the manifest at the loading dock. Every use case assumes that the data is accurate—and that will only happen when everything that’s manufactured is smart, connected, and able to self-verify automatically with the help of machine learning tuned to detect errors and potential fraud.

Companies are already seeing the possibilities of applying this bundle of emerging technologies to the supply chain. IDC projects that by 2021, at least 25% of Forbes Global 2000 (G2000) companies will use blockchain services as a foundation for digital trust at scale; 30% of top global manufacturers and retailers will do so by 2020. IDC also predicts that by 2020, up to 10% of pilot and production blockchain-distributed ledgers will incorporate data from IoT sensors.

Despite IDC’s optimism, though, the biggest barrier to adoption is the early stage level of enterprise use cases, particularly around blockchain. Currently, the sole significant enterprise blockchain production system is the virtual currency Bitcoin, which has unfortunately been tainted by its associations with speculation, dubious financial transactions, and the so-called dark web.

The technology is still in a sufficiently early stage that there’s significant uncertainty about its ability to handle the massive amounts of data a global enterprise supply chain generates daily. Never mind that it’s completely unregulated, with no global standard. There’s also a critical global shortage of experts who can explain emerging technologies like blockchain, the IoT, and machine learning to nontechnology industries and educate organizations in how the technologies can improve their supply chain processes. Finally, there is concern about how blockchain’s complex algorithms gobble computing power—and electricity (see “Blockchain Blackouts”).

Blockchain Blackouts

Blockchain is a power glutton. Can technology mediate the issue?

A major concern today is the enormous carbon footprint of the networks creating and solving the algorithmic problems that keep blockchains secure. Although virtual currency enthusiasts claim the problem is overstated, Michael Reed, head of blockchain technology for Intel, has been widely quoted as saying that the energy demands of blockchains are a significant drain on the world’s electricity resources.

Indeed, Wired magazine has estimated that by July 2019, the Bitcoin network alone will require more energy than the entire United States currently uses and that by February 2020 it will use as much electricity as the entire world does today.

Still, computing power is becoming more energy efficient by the day and sticking with paperwork will become too slow, so experts—Intel’s Reed among them—consider this a solvable problem.

“We don’t know yet what the market will adopt. In a decade, it might be status quo or best practice, or it could be the next Betamax, a great technology for which there was no demand,” Lonser says. “Even highly regulated industries that need greater transparency in the entire supply chain are moving fairly slowly.”

Blockchain will require acceptance by a critical mass of companies, governments, and other organizations before it displaces paper documentation. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue: multiple companies need to adopt these technologies at the same time so they can build a blockchain to exchange information, yet getting multiple companies to do anything simultaneously is a challenge. Some early initiatives are already underway, though:

  • A London-based startup called Everledger is using blockchain and IoT technology to track the provenance, ownership, and lifecycles of valuable assets. The company began by tracking diamonds from mine to jewelry using roughly 200 different characteristics, with a goal of stopping both the demand for and the supply of “conflict diamonds”—diamonds mined in war zones and sold to finance insurgencies. It has since expanded to cover wine, artwork, and other high-value items to prevent fraud and verify authenticity.
  • In September 2017, SAP announced the creation of its SAP Leonardo Blockchain Co-Innovation program, a group of 27 enterprise customers interested in co-innovating around blockchain and creating business buy-in. The diverse group of participants includes management and technology services companies Capgemini and Deloitte, cosmetics company Natura Cosméticos S.A., and Moog Inc., a manufacturer of precision motion control systems.
  • Two of Europe’s largest shipping ports—Rotterdam and Antwerp—are working on blockchain projects to streamline interaction with port customers. The Antwerp terminal authority says eliminating paperwork could cut the costs of container transport by as much as 50%.
  • The Chinese online shopping behemoth Alibaba is experimenting with blockchain to verify the authenticity of food products and catch counterfeits before they endanger people’s health and lives.
  • Technology and transportation executives have teamed up to create the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA), a forum for developing blockchain standards and education for the freight industry.

It’s likely that the first blockchain-based enterprise supply chain use case will emerge in the next year among companies that see it as an opportunity to bolster their legal compliance and improve business processes. Once that happens, expect others to follow.

Customers Will Expect Change

It’s only a matter of time before the supply chain becomes a competitive driver. The question for today’s enterprises is how to prepare for the shift. Customers are going to expect constant, granular visibility into their transactions and faster, more customized service every step of the way. Organizations will need to be ready to meet those expectations.

If organizations have manual business processes that could never be automated before, now is the time to see if it’s possible. Organizations that have made initial investments in emerging technologies are looking at how their pilot projects are paying off and where they might extend to the supply chain. They are starting to think creatively about how to combine technologies to offer a product, service, or business model not possible before.

A manufacturer will load a self-driving truck with a 3D printer capable of creating a customer’s ordered item en route to delivering it. A vendor will capture the market for a socially responsible product by allowing its customers to track the product’s production and verify that none of its subcontractors use slave labor. And a supermarket chain will win over customers by persuading them that their choice of supermarket is also a choice between being certain of what’s in their food and simply hoping that what’s on the label matches what’s inside.

At that point, a smart supply chain won’t just be a competitive edge. It will become a competitive necessity. D!


About the Authors

Gil Perez is Senior Vice President, Internet of Things and Digital Supply Chain, at SAP.

Tom Raftery is Global Vice President, Futurist, and Internet of Things Evangelist, at SAP.

Hans Thalbauer is Senior Vice President, Internet of Things and Digital Supply Chain, at SAP.

Dan Wellers is Global Lead, Digital Futures, at SAP.

Fawn Fitter is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology.

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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Four Retail Technology Trends To Take Off In 2018

Shaily Kumar

Over the past few years, technology has seen a significant shift from cyclical, invention-led spending on point solutions to investments targeting customer-driven, end-to-end value. The next wave of disruption and productivity improvements is here, which means a huge opportunity for digital-focused enterprises – if you are following the right roadmap.

Technology trends have significant potential over the next few years. Establishing a digital platform will not only set the stage for business innovation to provide competitive advantage, but it will also create new business models that will change the way we do business. Technology trends in 2018 will lay the foundation for the maturity of innovative technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning and will prepare both businesses and shoppers to be ready for their consumption.

Like any other industry, retail is being disrupted. It is no longer enough to simply stock racks with alluring products and wait for customers to rush through the door. Technological innovation is changing the way we shop. Customers can find the lowest price for any product with just a few screen touches. They can read online reviews, have products sent to their home, try them, and return anything they don’t want – all for little or nothing out of pocket. If there are problems, they can use social networks to call out brands that come up short.

Retailers are making their products accessible from websites and mobile applications, with many running effective Internet business operations rather than brick-and-mortar stores. They convey merchandise to the customer’s front entry and are set up with web-based networking media if things turn out badly.

Smart retailers are striving to fulfill changing customer needs and working to guarantee top customer service regardless of how their customer interacts with them.

2017 saw the development of some progressive technology in retail, and 2018 will be another energizing year for the retail industry. Today’s informed customers expect a more engaging shopping experience, with a consistent mix of both online and in-store recommendations. The retail experience is poised to prosper throughout next couple of years – for retailers that are prepared to embrace technology.

Here are four areas of retail technology I predict will take off in 2018:

In-store GPS-driven shopping trolleys

Supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s now enable their customers to scan and pay for products using a mobile app instead of waiting in a checkout line. The next phase of this involves intelligent shopping trolleys, or grocery store GPS: Customers use a touch screen to load shopping lists, and the system helps them find the items in the store. Customers can then check off and pay for items as they go, directly on-screen. These shopping trolleys will make their way into stores around the last quarter of 2018.

Electronic rack edge names

Electronic rack edge names are not yet broadly utilized, but this could change in 2018 as more retailers adopt this technology. Currently, retail workers must physically select and update printed labels to reflect changes in price, promotions, etc. This technology makes the process more efficient by handling such changes electronically.

Reference point technology

Despite the fact that it’s been around since 2013, reference point technology hasn’t yet been utilized to its fullest potential. In the last few years, however, it’s started to pick up in industries like retail. It’s now being used by a few retailers for area-based promotions.

Some interesting uses I’ve observed: Retailers can send messages to customers when they’re nearby a store location, and in-store mannequins can offer information about the clothing and accessories they’re wearing. I anticipate that this innovation will take off throughout 2018 and into 2019.

Machine intelligence

The technological innovations describe above will also provide retailers with new data streams. These data sources, when merged with existing customer data, online, and ERP data, will lead to new opportunities. Recently Walmart announced it would begin utilizing rack examining robots to help review its stores. The machines will check stock, prices, and even help settle lost inventory. It will also help retailers learn more about changing customer behavior in real time, which will boost engagement.

Clearly, technology and digital transformation in retail have changed the way we live and shop. 2018 will see emerging technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence using structured and unstructured data to deliver innovation. As technology develops, it will continue to transform and enhance the retail experience.

For more insight on e-commerce, see Cognitive Commerce In The Digital World: Enhancing The Customer Journey.

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Shaily Kumar

About Shaily Kumar

Shailendra has been on a quest to help organisations make money out of data and has generated an incremental value of over one billion dollars through analytics and cognitive processes. With a global experience of more than two decades, Shailendra has worked with a myriad of Corporations, Consulting Services and Software Companies in various industries like Retail, Telecommunications, Financial Services and Travel - to help them realise incremental value hidden in zettabytes of data. He has published multiple articles in international journals about Analytics and Cognitive Solutions; and recently published “Making Money out of Data” which showcases five business stories from various industries on how successful companies make millions of dollars in incremental value using analytics. Prior to joining SAP, Shailendra was Partner / Analytics & Cognitive Leader, Asia at IBM where he drove the cognitive business across Asia. Before joining IBM, he was the Managing Director and Analytics Lead at Accenture delivering value to its clients across Australia and New Zealand. Coming from the industry, Shailendra held key Executive positions driving analytics at Woolworths and Coles in the past.