As the co-founder of the Auto-ID Center at MIT, Sanjay Sarma developed many of the key technologies behind RFID standards used worldwide. He is the Vice President for Open Learning, and leads the Office of Digital Learning, which oversees MIT OpenCourseWare and supports the development and use of digital technology for on-campus teaching and massive open online courses (MOOCs). He is the Fred Fort Flowers (1941) and Daniel Fort Flowers (1941) Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Sarma also serves on the boards of GS1, EPCglobal, several startup companies including Senaya and ESSESS, and edX. He is an advisor to several national governments and global companies.
Let’s start by talking about how technology is transforming the world – and your views on the implications for society. At MIT you have a bird’s eye view – what are you seeing?
People tend to see things they are interested in. In my world, this means IoT, RFID, design, the transformation of business and everyday life, digital learning and its impact on the future of teaching. I’m interested in Smart Cities, in the challenges that both businesses and societies face as they struggle to cope with the changes ahead, and of course the new ideas that emerge at the edge of all of this.
Wow. What interesting shifts do you see at the intersection of business and technology?
There are so many shifts, it’s hard to keep up. At MIT, we’re lucky to be involved in so many of these shifts. Technology and technological innovation is transforming everything.
For example, the Internet of Things (IoT) is transformational to systems, devices, technologies and applications—across industry and around the world. Both businesses and consumers expect that all things—products, devices, machines, even people—will be “connected.” There’s an explosion of cloud-based data gathering, processing and sharing platforms—from social media to industrial platforms. At the same time, microcontroller and communications technologies are increasing in capability and decreasing in cost.
We are living in an age of constant disruption—in technology, in business, and in the lives of people, governments, and nations, all caught up in this turbulence.
How do we help societies learn? Will businesses and governments adapt? What are the societal implications? Why is this happening now? The questions never stop. Our job is to search for answers and help others find them as well.
Can you give us an example of this sort of transformation on the business side?
Sure. The concept of the “digital twin” is already changing the way industrial manufacturing works.
Do you remember the digital avatar? The digital avatar was a virtual you—that could play a game and build a “second life” for you in the virtual world. Now we have its industrial counterpart—the digital twin.
The digital twin, a term NASA coined, and the subtly different Cloud of Things, which we conceived, is essentially a virtual representation of the physical product, and is an intelligent abstraction of the lifecycle of the product. So, in manufacturing, for example, the digital twin includes an intelligent simulation of product design, the layout, testing, optimization and manufacturing, all connected to the physical product or process. The virtual factory mirrors the real factory. Then, the supply chain of the product is virtualized using RFID, so we know where your product is at all times. And now, we are seeing the potential of virtualizing the consumption chain.
The physical world is mirrored in the cloud. This has several benefits—from better security and authentication, to gatekeeping, to business rule management. And there is a competitive benefit. Companies that miss the boat will get left behind.
What are the barriers to companies embracing this concept of the digital twin?
It comes down to talent and capability. Both Siemens and GE have digital twin initiatives that help manufacturers with the transformation. What it boils down to is the appetite for change. One barrier is resistance to the cloud. Internal IT may claim that the cloud is less secure. But we know that this is not true. So the barriers to change are often internal. The status quo.
How are companies going to overcome these barriers?
So companies must learn to be open to the new, and constantly learn?
Yes, that’s true of both individuals and businesses. We are in an age where learning never stops.
Tell us about your work with GS1.
GS1—the standards body—is helping companies overcome these barriers. Their “Global Language of Business” connects the physical and digital worlds. Identification of objects, assets, locations, etc. and automatic data capture are powered by GS1 barcodes and EPC/RFID. GS1 standards for data sharing enable interoperable, trusted and transparent data which are foundational to unleashing IoT capabilities.
Supply chain standards save time and money by reducing administration and slashing paperwork. Largely unseen, yet tremendously important, GS1 standards ensure key processes run smoothly in some of the world’s biggest industries. For instance:
- Retail. GS1 standards lie at the heart of efficient ‘just in time’ systems. Retailers can track products at every stage of the supply chain, meeting changing consumer demands with minimal wastage and maximum cash flow.
- Healthcare. Standards play a key role in delivering exceptional care and maintaining patient safety. From monitoring medication to ensuring optimal use of critical resources like MRI scanners, GS1 standards revolutionising healthcare services.
- Transport and logistics. How do you make sure things are in the right place at the right time, and then communicate the status to customers? GS1 standards provide a framework for real-time tracking, traceability and supply chain optimization.
GS1 also provides a trusted foundation for the responsible use of the technologies behind its standards—paving the way for the future of IoT by providing best practices for risk assessment and data protection.
What should marketers be thinking about with all these changes in technology?
Two things come to mind right away. There will be huge opportunities to change the way consumers live. Marketers have to tell the story. How will life change for the better? What are the capabilities of this technology? How can the technology be embraced for good?
Secondly, marketers are also seeing technology transform the marketing function. From the marketing cloud, to the customer avatar, we see companies learning to predict the needs and wants of specific customers. When Big Data meets marketing, many things are possible. The learning curve for both marketers and their customers is steep, and so will require an open mindset.
Marketers must take the lead in understanding the customers’ jobs to be done. How does a product help when it predicts and collaborates with other products to build a better consumer experience?
The future is not to be feared. Marketers must do a better job of helping consumers learn what the possibilities are. How do we make use of technology to improve the customer experience? How do we avoid creeping the customer out?
IoT will be an amazing, intelligent , marketing channel. With Amazon Prime, Bezos unbundled the shopping cart and made shipping a fixed cost. Now, Prime members buy without concern for additional shipping costs. The result? Customer orders go from a drip to a steady flow! Let’s look at Amazon Dash, a Wi-Fi connected device that reorders your favorite product with the press of a button. Each Dash Button is paired with a product of your choice, which is selected through the Amazon App on your Android or iOS smartphone during the set-up process. Marketers should view every device as a channel to better understand the customer.
What warnings do you have for society?
I would ask both businesses and individuals to realize that technology must be used to serve society.
If society ends up serving technology, we will have lost our humanity.
At the end, we must ask why. Why are we doing this? Does it help or hurt life on earth?
Thanks for your time, Professor Sarma.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar.