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Fast-developing communications, computing, and robotics technologies will do more than bring about digital transformation—they will bring about the evolution of a digital society.
Those see-through mixed-reality headsets project an image in front of the eyes of a user and turn the Fossett Lab into a field of interesting terrain, a collection of mineral specimens, or even the surface of Mars. In the lab, Washington University students use this augmented reality environment to study topography; to get an intimate, three-dimensional view of the fabric of our Earth and the crystals that make up its minerals. One of their teachers, Professor Ray Arvidson, uses the technology for a slightly more far-out reason—exploring the surface of Mars to help plot the course of the Curiosity Rover.1
One of the most physical of sciences, geology, has been transformed into a digital world. The work of Professor Arvidson takes that digital transformation a step further—using a digital model to test out physical actions. But while very few will pilot an interplanetary vehicle, many will be living in a digitally transformed world.
The Chemours Company
Didn’t digital transformation already happen?
Despite the 2.5 billion smartphones in the world and the uncounted sextillions (really) of transistors processing away, a lot of daily life is still analog.2, 3 The ubiquity of digital devices masks how many digitizable tasks are still done by humans, from driving a car to combing through scientific literature. In business, digital transformation remains a focus area for corporations and consultancies alike, as companies try to change analog business processes in marketing, sales, operations, and beyond into digital ones. That process will improve business efficiency, but there is a larger digital transformation underway—the transformation into a digital society.
The simultaneous maturation of 5G communications, advanced computing, and autonomous technology is ushering in a time when the sci-fi promises are starting to come true. Together, those three technologies create an express train for data, a virtual avatar of the world in which that data can be put to work, and a mechanism for exporting the virtual conclusions into the real world. And all of it depends on chemistry.
An express train for data
“The world is moving to a hyperconnected society,” says Sanghee Kim, Fluoroproducts Market Development Manager at The Chemours Company. “And AR and VR, aided by artificial intelligence, make life more profound. We need 5G to make this happen.” The first 5G devices have just hit the market, and network providers are racing to build out the 5G infrastructure. Due to the high data speed required, 5G radios and the cables that knit the network together will depend on materials, like fluoropolymers, that have excellent dielectric properties at high frequencies over a wide range of temperatures.
Smartphones will be the first exposure consumers have to 5G, but it won’t be long until the real promise of 5G emerges. Imagine a world where remote surgery can save the lives of patients no matter how far they are from the surgeon or where real-time remote monitoring of patients improves the quality—and length—of lives. “Digital transformation will reshape the fabric of our lives and the nature of our society, and we are already starting to see its impact in controls, self-driving vehicles, and autonomous drones,” says Zeru Tekie, Fluoroproducts Global Technology Senior Director at The Chemours Company. More prosaically, the speed and low latency of 5G will end the era of lousy conference call connections and lagging video meetings, making remote work and far-flung teams more efficient.
A virtual avatar—powered by and benefiting chemistry
Add in the broad distribution of 5G-connected sensors and amazing things begin to happen. Sensor-laden autonomous vehicles will form a map of their immediate environment, including other vehicles, and communicate with one another to turn gridlock into a ballet.
Of course, some environments are easier to instrument than others, and chemical manufacturing is among the more challenging. Fast data transfer means that plant operators can have tighter control than ever before, but sensors still need to advance further. New breakthroughs in chemistry will be needed. According to Dr. Tekie, “The challenge is developing sensors and analytical tools that can help us detect and quantify specific compounds with very fast response times.” That data will enable artificial intelligences (AIs) to use better algorithms to build virtual models of the facility and predict plant behavior.
Managing a manufacturing facility is a challenging task for a computer, but it has, at least, a limited number of variables. That’s not true for weather. Current weather models run on powerful computers, but as anyone caught in the rain without an umbrella can attest, they’re not always right. A new class of computers may be able to help. Quantum computers can perform far more calculations in parallel than conventional digital machines, making them the ideal tool for advanced algorithms that build virtual models of highly complex environments.
Here, too, chemistry plays a starring role by providing advanced materials for the unique electronic demands surrounding quantum computers. Of course, chemistry will also benefit from quantum computing. These massively parallel processors are a perfect fit for modeling complex chemical interactions with millions of possible pathways that must be mapped.
While still in its infancy, quantum computing has already been put to the test to create a virtual avatar of a different sort of chaotic environment: Beijing traffic. Volkswagen teamed up with quantum computer company D-Wave to test how a fleet of instrumented taxis could be rerouted to ideal paths in order to reduce traffic.4 Soon, we’ll start applying quantum computing to other seemingly intractable issues on our journey toward a digital society.
Fluoroproducts Global Technology
The Chemours Company
Making real-world change
Sensors collect data and send it at unprecedented speeds to incredible new computers for algorithms and AIs to digest. Then what? How do the computers make real-life changes? There’s always the analog process of providing recommendations to humans to act upon, but as our trust in algorithms and AIs increases and robotics improves, humans will be able to take themselves out of the equation more and more. The Siemens factory in Amberg, Germany, is a step in this direction. The Amberg facility, which makes circuit boards and controllers, is heavily computerized and almost entirely automated.5 In digital factories such as this, engineers can design or improve products in a virtual environment, test how the plant will respond to the changes, and then begin production—all without physical prototypes and with limited manual intervention.
It’s a small step from there to a full digital transformation of manufacturing. Imagine that a sensor determines that a part in, say, a piece of heavy machinery, is nearing the end of its life. The sensor transfers that finding to an AI system which orders up a replacement to be produced through additive manufacturing (or 3-D printing). That order gets sent to a factory, where it gets executed autonomously and shipped to the customer. Soon that shipping will be autonomous as well. Quantum computers are ideally suited to helping shipping companies determine ideal delivery routes—a surprisingly complex problem—which can be carried out by autonomous vehicles and short-range drones.
But all that seems a world away from the digital landscape in the Fossett Lab, where Professor Arvidson is working with one of the longest-range drones there is. His students have more earthly concerns. Deep in their augmented reality environment, they examine the crystalline structures of minerals and help lay the groundwork for a new way of discovering the novel chemistries that will change the world they grow into.
1 “Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration.” Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration, Washington University in St. Louis, virtualplanet.wustl.edu/.
2 “Number of Smartphone Users Worldwide 2014–2020.” Statista, www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/.
3 Handy, Jim. “How Many Transistors Have Ever Shipped?” Forbes, 26 May 2014, www.forbes.com/sites/jimhandy/2014/05/26/how-many-transistors-have-ever-shipped/#5adac0a4425b/.
4 Edelstein, Stephen. “Volkswagen Uses Quantum Computing to Fight Beijing Traffic.” The Drive, 30 March 2017, https://www.thedrive.com/tech/8789/volkswagen-uses-quantum-computing-to-fight-beijing-traffic/.
5 “Embattled German Industrials Pursue the Factory of the Future.” IndustryWeek, Bloomberg, 11 Apr. 2018, www.industryweek.com/automation/embattled-german-industrials-pursue-factory-future/.
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