Phil Brunkard 13 July 2017

Connected everything – lamp posts, mousetraps, and even the brain

Being connected and connecting almost anything were key themes of the recent BT Innovation Week, held at Adastral Park in June. From BT CEO Gavin Patterson stating his ambition for close to 100% fibre coverage across the UK, to David Rowan (Editor-at-large of WIRED magazine's UK edition) musing on brain implants being linked to computers. These implants could potentially enable humans to improve their brain function, or even download their thoughts. This would no doubt be wonderfully promising for the many people who believe the myth that we only use 10% of our brain.

Meanwhile, Elon Musk wants to make brain implants that can wirelessly interface with computers. His latest start-up, Neuralink, is developing a technology to intertwine computers and the human brain by placing a digital layer built into the brain and located above the cortex (known as ‘neural lace’). This could effectively blur the boundary between artificial and human intelligence as artificial general intelligence research advances. Scary or exciting?

Whilst a future vision of BT providing telepathic communication services may seem like science fiction, in the near term neural lace could realistically be used to treat brain conditions like epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease. It’s encouraging to see this type of research focusing on major health issues. At Innovation Week I also observed how people were particularly keen to learn more about the research activity with Smart Cities and the Internet of Things. A vast array of smart technologies which connect ‘things’ is already being tested across the UK.

In Milton Keynes, the MK:Smart project aims to support the city’s sustainable growth while reducing carbon emissions. It is also looking at optimising parking spaces with the help of a traffic monitoring and car parking applications. The CityVerve project in Manchester applies the IoT technologies to monitor air quality at different locations, to encourage more physical activity outdoors via the network of sensors in the city’s parks, and to reduce car-use and encourage cycling. In both of the projects BT is heavily involved. Back at BT’s Innovation Week there was also the presence of a rather large smart lamp post looming over the exhibition stand – not just for smart lighting, but also for traffic monitoring and air pollution sensing.

During the event, I met someone from a housing association who was particularly interested in a sensor-enabled mousetrap (possibly rat trap?) that alerts when the trap has been triggered and vermin caught. Not from the school of Internet of Silly Things, as I first thought, but a practical solution for a real-life use case with a viable benefit. Connected via a LoRa (‘long range, low power’) gateway to a data hub, with other devices such as carbon monoxide detectors, damp sensors and boiler status devices, she advised “we can significantly reduce the need for maintenance staff to undertake unnecessary routine inspections whilst improving the care and the well-being of our tenants”.

All these smart devices and smart applications lead us to ever increasing levels of connectivity. There is no one-network-fits-all, as different smart devices will require different levels of connectivity depending on their requirements and how they are used within applications. The exhibition showcased how different networks such as LoRa, LTE or 5G will support different requirements dependent on the impact of range, power and data rate, on performance and cost.

Of course, life in a smart world also revolves around data. All these devices, sensors and applications will generate massive quantities of data, while further big data volumes are provided by people, businesses and many other sources. So how do you deal with the challenge of how to use this data in meaningful ways? You need a data hub to bring this data together with a standard means for information exchange. Data is securely stored, catalogued and exposed in a common and consistent way. The information exchange enables information discovery, sharing and analysis across a multitude of diverse and complex external data sources and formats.

That’s the technology aspects covered but several Local Government CIOs I have spoken to are keen to progress initiatives around smart cities and Internet of Things but admit they find it difficult to determine where to start smart.

  • What are the critical use cases that will deliver benefit to our citizens?
  • How do we move beyond initial research and proof of concept activities to a viable platform delivering beneficial services?
  • With that in mind, what are the right technology options – connectivity, data sets and applications?

“That is why we are now offering our customers a smart city starter kit” reasoned Paul Garner, Head of Future Business Technology research at BT. “The starter kit will initially allow our customers to test core use cases around air pollution, traffic flow and parking using the BT Information Exchange. With the information exchange, Local Authorities can easily make the data available to their health partners who can then potentially analyse this with other data sets, such as medical records to determine the correlation between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory problems such as asthma with pollution and traffic congestion”.

Whilst public service organisations might not be developing projects with brain implants they can look to address the impact of conditions like COPD. There’s more to Smart City initiatives than smart parking and lighting – the opportunity should be focused on people’s well-being which can also ease the pressures on our national health service. With COPD affecting over one million of the population that would seem a good place to start smart, wouldn’t it?

Phil Brunkard, CIO Regional Government & Health, BT

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