As technology consumers, we often interact with the user interface or software portion of new technologies. Software updates have become part of owning a device. We wait for new features to be added and complain when they aren’t. In a way, the hardware becomes an afterthought; seen more as a declining asset than a platform brimming with new possibilities, when in fact, the pace of change is in-part driven by innovations at the hardware level.
Today, sensors monitor everything from patient health to air quality to the path of an autonomous vehicle on the road. Companies are deploying machine learning and analytics to improve their ability to predict and react to market changes. Cities are looking to technology to improve everything from transit to utilities, while at home, smart devices such as heating and lighting appliances and voice-enabled assistances are becoming commonplace.
Canadians are excited about the potential of new and emerging technologies to transform their lives. A recent Canadian Technology and Future of Work 2018 survey found Canadians are most excited to see the effects of technology in smart cities (35 per cent); artificial intelligence (18 per cent); and self-driving cars (13 per cent), along with quantum computing (10 per cent) and wearable technology (nine per cent).
When it comes to transforming lives with technology, people often forget about the hardware side of things. For example, sensors are allowing us to build smarter cities. In construction, builders typically test the curing (the maintenance of adequate moisture and temperature) of poured concrete by taking cylindrical test moulds. These moulds help determine when the concrete has developed enough strength and durability to make a building stable. Now though, companies can instead use fibre optic cables with integrated sensors embedded in the concrete to determine curing and stability in real time. They can also use the cables and sensors on an ongoing basis, monitoring the health of a building over time by measuring factors such as temperature, vibrations or unexpected shifts. Hardware innovation is helping us bring previously inanimate objects to life.
Another smart city example is electrical transformers. Transformers have not fundamentally changed over the past century. But today, with the addition of built-in sensors, we can better predict when transformers are about to fail or require maintenance. This leads to less equipment downtime and allows utilities to make our electrical grid more stable.
Autonomous cars house countless advanced sensors to enable critical technologies like LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), which is key to true self-driving. LiDAR uses rapid pulses of laser light to determine distance from objects. Sensors in the car calculate the information received from the light beams and translate this information into actions, enabling autonomous operation. Without significant advances in the production of mission-critical hardware, autonomous cars, trucks and buses wouldn’t be close to being a reality.
In healthcare, advanced image-guided systems incorporating sensor and machine vision camera technology, similar to that used in autonomous vehicles, is improving treatment options for surgical patients, enabling pinpoint surgical guidance, improving operational safety and efficiency.
Devices we use every day, such as our smartphones, tablets and computers, are also being transformed by new hardware. Chip manufacturers are developing new chipsets optimized to process vast amounts of data quickly – a requirement for any artificial intelligence (AI) application. As demand for AI grows so will the need for reduced processing times in the cloud, requiring the deployment of more advanced hardware at the network edge.
As we progress along the path to a future with smarter cities and more automation, hardware, software and artificial intelligence need to progress together. Without hardware-level innovation, driven by advanced manufacturing and design processes, ground-breaking advancements will not be possible. From faster processors to better displays, improved sensors to lightning-fast storage, hardware is powering the future of innovation.