Computers used to fill a room. Now they fit in our back pockets and even in the pits of our stomachs. How will ever-shrinking technology create the next business disruption?
It wasn’t that long ago that computers with decent processing capabilities needed a room with reinforced floors to handle their weight. Now there are computers that are smaller than a grain of rice and robots that measure 4 millimeters.
Small technology is enabling everything from ingestible robots to miniscule drones, as well as plenty more devices that sound like they were fueled by epic binge-watching of Star Trek and every single version of Blade Runner.
Small will rule the world. Multiple factors have converged in an opportune way: the decreasing price of hardware, improved chip design, shrinking components, and the rise in data gathering that, thanks to the cloud and artificial intelligence, can now be turned into business value.
That means tiny isn’t just getting tinier, it’s also getting smarter, allowing us to apply things like AI and machine learning to a larger number of business use cases.
We’ll be able to use tiny sensors and robots to gather intelligence in places where we couldn’t afford to go before or that were too dangerous—and we’ll be able to do it 24×7. The amount of data alone generated from smart small tech will transform our analysis and management of information.
But before we focus our shrink rays on every technology in the enterprise, we need to address some roadblocks. The trifecta of sensors, power sources, and data need to be refined for small-at-scale to be viable. There are ethics and privacy issues to consider, especially in the realm of health technology. There are supply chain and manufacturing considerations. And while small can be great, if there isn’t a profitable business outcome, it’s a failure.
And no one wants to be the elephant crammed in a tiny room.
One of the most important technologies that has facilitated our quest to shrink is the microelectronic mechanical systems (MEMS) sensor. Truly hitting the commercial market in the 1980s, MEMS were always designed for small. Over the past decades, they’ve gotten progressively smaller and much more sophisticated.
Dror Sharon, co-founder and CEO, Consumer Physics
Now we’re surrounded by them. They’re found in Internet of Things (IoT) devices, cars, phones, and many other applications. MEMS manufacturing has exploded to keep up with demand: four years ago, 2.5 million sensors were being made each day; today, Bosch, one of the leading MEMS manufacturers, makes 4.5 million every day, and production continues to increase.
The cost has shrunk as well. Many sensors are now a fraction of their price even a few years ago. The global market for these sensors is predicted to be worth US$29 billion by 2024.
As technologies get smaller in size and in price, interesting things follow. Look, for example, at how smartwatches have evolved over the years, from clunky to streamlined, from exclusive to (somewhat) cheap, capitalizing on the now-commonplace bleed between consumer and enterprise technology.
We’re only in the early stages of what is possible when it comes to tech miniaturization, says Dror Sharon, co-founder and CEO of Tel Aviv- and San Francisco-based Consumer Physics. His company has created a small, handheld microspectrometer called the SCiO. A spectrometer uses elements such as light rays or mass to judge the physical characteristics of something; conventional devices range from gun-style handhelds to printer-size and beyond.
The SCiO is a shrunken-down near-infrared spectrometer that connects to the company’s private cloud through a smartphone app. The device scans a product, and the results appear on the app. The first version was funded by a Kickstarter campaign in 2014; now it can be used to assess agricultural products, food quality control, and pharmaceutical authentication, among other things. Consumers and professionals can use it to test their food for sugar or fat content, for example, or to judge the quality of produce.
Sharon is, unsurprisingly, a fan of small.
“We haven’t seen anything yet,” he says. “In 15 years, we will have both sensors and machines that are so tiny that we’ll have a hard time seeing them. This will have a huge impact on our lives.”
How huge? Miniaturization will touch every part of our lives. Take healthcare, for example. For many people, big healthcare systems are about to be downsized—in a good way—to the “hospital of one,” with personalization across the healthcare spectrum. Expect prescriptions of personalized pharmaceuticals manufactured for individuals at an increasing rate.
An early instance of this is CAR T-cell therapy, a form of immunotherapy that uses a patient’s immune cells to treat cancer. Instead of the broad-brush approach of conventional cancer treatments, which can damage unaffected cells, these new treatments raise the possibility of extremely targeted and personalized treatments. Two CAR T-cell therapies were approved by the FDA in 2017. Neither is in widespread use yet and they are expensive, but they herald the beginning of a new era of medicine (see “Tiny Health Helpers”).
Antipsychotic drug Abilify MyCite is the first of a new kind of pharmaceutical: It’s a medical device coupled with drug delivery that includes a monitoring capability. After ingestion, the stomach’s gastric juices activate the pill’s biosensor, which then transmits information to a skin patch that the patient wears close to their stomach. The patch then notifies a smartphone app that that pill has been taken; finally, that notification can go to, for example, caretakers and physicians.
The idea is to be able to accurately monitor adherence to prescriptions. Patients not taking their medications properly, or at all, is a big, expensive problem. They often need more medical care down the line, and may experience quality-of-life issues that can result from skipping meds, especially for chronic conditions.
But smart meds go beyond merely confirming that patients have taken their meds at the right time. They also offer the potential of precise dosing and microdosing—just the right amount at the right time. This could help minimize the side effects, whether merely annoying or life threatening, that often accompany beneficial drugs.
The pills also have the potential to become system sentinels, monitoring internal temperature over the long term and assessing whether repeated doses of drugs are leading to internal damage, such as gastrointestinal problems.
One of the biggest impacts of tech miniaturization is in medicine, where several revolutionary developments are already about to appear in doctors’ offices worldwide.
Stomach sensors. MIT researchers have developed an ingestible sensor pill that can assess what ails your guts, such as gastrointestinal bleeding.
Mini docs. These robot docs are designed to help with surgeries by actually entering a patient’s body through a small incision and using mini surgical tools, including tiny scissors.
Bot specialists. Nano robots can be guided to specific areas of the body to deliver new stem cells, which help repair damaged tissue.
Though healthcare is getting small the fastest, innovations that are still in R&D labs have a good chance of taking miniaturization to the next level across many other industries. These include the first molecular robot that can build molecular structures that measure a millionth of a millimeter. The idea is to create molecular assembly lines—like a car plant but really, really small.
Meanwhile, size matters in the quest to make quantum computing practical. Right now, we’re at the equivalent of the vacuum-tube stage: big machines, big spaces, low computing volumes. The world’s smallest chip (currently, anyway) is about the size of a red blood cell and stores memory on protons of light. It could help quantum get down to size.
Delta robots are commonly used in manufacturing, but getting them small has been a challenge. Harvard researchers have created the milliDelta, which isn’t much bigger than a one-cent coin. These little robots could build our small future in industrial and medical applications.
In the cute and useful category is the RoboFly. It’s powered by a laser beam and can lift off and land untethered, meaning no need for a cable. Its creators figured out how to minimize the weight of onboard technology and energy usage so that the mini device can be free to fly.
Consuming, producing, and deriving meaning from data is where business value comes from, whether we’re talking about mini-manufacturing or personalized medicine. Thus, small has little meaning if it can’t generate Big Data.
Indeed, the vast quantities of data that will be generated by small tech will be the tipping point that brings the issues of data privacy, security, and ethics to a head. The good news for businesses is that people are very open to trading their data if they know what they will get in return and how the data will be used.
In other words, data collection and use transparency will become ever more important—especially in healthcare, given that we will literally be swallowing surveillance devices.
We need to study the ethics of small and to ensure that we have control, traceability, and transparency for small tech’s outcomes. Small will make life better but will also create its own problems, and we need to be prepared for those possibilities (see “Big Issues for Small Tech”).
The tech might be small, but the potential issues ain’t. Here are some considerations to think about before we start swallowing tiny robots.
Privacy. There’s no getting away from privacy considerations these days, and nothing is quite as invasive as something we eat. If it’s drugs, medical bots, or implantable devices, small tech takes privacy down to the molecular level. “We’re used to seeing and feeling and touching, and, well, what if we can’t see it?” asks Consumer Physics’ co-founder and CEO Dror Sharon. “There are ethical questions I think that come with miniaturization, and some people are more aware of that than others.”
Security. The increasing demand for mini-tech security is why we’re now seeing advanced security for the Internet of Things. These are technologies that are designed to secure data all the way from enterprise level down to the sensors through little kernels of software on the sensors themselves, which allow data verification and true edge processing.
Maintenance. Small tech needs to be tough enough to last, or enterprises could end up spending huge amounts of money on maintenance.
Growing pains. If your main concern is a small form factor, it’s easy to avoid building in wiggle room that might be needed later for powering up, such as more data capacity. Just because things are small doesn’t mean they should be disposable.
The Goldilocks conundrum. When is small just not right? When the functionality is negatively impacted, says Sharon. “At some point, they become useless for us as humans; they’re too small,” he says. “Technology companies will need to adapt to the fact that in the end it might be somebody with chubby fingers using them and who can’t handle these devices.”
Fragility. Microelectronics can be very fragile and difficult to repair. In these cases, companies need to decide whether to make a product sturdier, which is to say more expensive, or larger or adapt their warranty programs.
The unavoidable. Sometimes small unavoidably gets in its own way. For example, autonomous and assisted driving vehicles use small cameras to monitor their environments, which means a speck of dirt or a scratch has a much bigger impact, requiring a mechanism to protect the lens.
Getting to personalization nirvana will be a challenge, however. The manufacturing shop floor must be redesigned and reconfigured to make customized batches of products with minimal lag in between. That will take an enormous adjustment for most industries because we’ve designed our supply chains for large quantities produced at the highest-possible speeds. But the market, eventually, will demand it.
This will call for machines that are more flexible and IoT-driven while still compliant with validation scheme. That’s why enterprises need to begin planning for technology, physical space, and people who can manage the move-to-small processes.
Probably the biggest barrier for small tech right now is power. We need power generation and storage solutions that are cost effective, last a long time, and are environmentally sound. Miniaturized technology calls for power sources that provide consistent, long-term energy. No one wants their ingestible bot to die for lack of energy.
To make sensors completely independent, we need a big advance in power, says Donald Sadoway, professor at the department of materials science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who focuses on environmentally sound electrochemistry.
The lithium-ion battery, which was the leap forward in portable power that enabled such innovations as cell phones in the 1990s, has yet to be matched for our current, and ever-growing, needs. Lithium-ion batteries can also overheat and sometimes burst into flames; there have been several well-publicized cases of smartphones combusting (and expensive manufacturer recalls).
What we’ve had so far is incremental improvements on the lithium-ion battery, says Sadoway, when what we need is a radical innovation.
“We really need a quantum improvement in performance over lithium-ion,” he says. Drones are limited by battery performance, as are electric cars, which, Sadoway predicts, “will hit a plateau very, very soon.”
Added to the scientific difficulty is the need for new batteries to be not only much more powerful but also rechargeable. Hopefully, we’ll hit a sweet spot of efficient energy usage, strong power generation, and compact energy storage in the future. Research may also reveal self-powering sensors that don’t need external juice at all.
But don’t look for solutions from within the existing power structure, says Sadoway. “I guarantee you, the lithium-ion producers are not going to give us the next-step increase in performance,” he predicts. “That’s going to come from the inventors, the people at the universities that are free thinking and have the audacity to try something different.”
In fact, the co-inventor of the lithium-ion battery, John Goodenough, now 96, is still working on battery technology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he and a co-researcher have created a new type of solid-state battery cell that promises to be both more efficient and more environmentally sound than his earlier invention.
But wherever the next step forward comes from, now is the time to make big plans for our small future. With the ascendancy of the IoT, robotics and AI, Big Data, and cloud computing, there is extraordinary pressure for a Big Bang of tiny tech to disrupt business—everything from autonomous vehicles to healthcare monitoring to robotic agriculture.
“There are so many people working on so many things, just an explosion of innovation,” says Sharon. “I’m super bullish. I think it’s one of those trends that’s not going to stop anytime soon.” D!
About the Authors
Andy Hancock is Regional Lead of SAP Leonardo IoT Portfolio at SAP.
Matthew Jennings is Global Vice President, SAP Leonardo at SAP.
Carol Mackenzie is Vice President of Business Development for Consumer Goods Industry Solutions at SAP. In this role, she works with consumer products firms, partners, and industry thought leaders globally on driving innovation into their operations utilizing the SAP Consumer Products solution portfolio.
Marc Teerlink drives the strategy and vision for SAP’s digital innovation system Leonardo and the production of Leonardo’s AI and machine learning technologies. Prior to his current role, Marc was IBM Watson’s Chief Business Strategist, where he oversaw the new offerings portfolio for the Watson platform during IBM’s formative years of artificial intelligence. During his time at IBM, Marc executed a number of successful transformational projects and created and delivered cognitive computing solutions and services offerings. Before IBM, he built expertise as a banker, consumer products business manager, consultant, and change leader within nine countries across three continents.
Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor’s Alpha, among other outlets.
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