By Andrew Moody (China Daily) Updated: 2010-10-18 08:26
Attendees inspecting IBM servers displayed at the Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco in September. IBM has made China the focus of its global efforts in this area by launching its new Interconnection of Things Technology Center in Beijing last month. Tony Avelar/Bloomberg
Breakthroughs in technology provide opportunity to exploit new generation of cyber exchanges
BEIJING - Thomas Li insists the Internet is no longer just a medium for mere humans.
The director of IBM Research in China believes Web technology could prove even more revolutionary when machines are fully adapted to using it.
He believes the Internet of Things (IOT), rather than of humans, could be a driver of cyberspace exchanges in the 21st century.
"The Internet so far has merely focused on human-to-human collaboration and information exchange," he said.
"Conceptually, the Internet of Things has been there for a long time. It has now become more realistic to make it really happen, however, because of breakthroughs in technology," he said.
IBM has made China the focus of its global efforts in this area by launching its new Interconnection of Things Technology Center in Beijing last month.
He believes China could be at the forefront of technology because in so many areas technology is starting from a clean sheet.
"China has a strong motivation to develop this technology. There are no baggage or legacy issues," he added.
The IOT has so far tended to be used in such areas as traffic management, power generation, energy-cost-intelligent buildings and in healthcare.
It relies on sensors gathering data and other information and communicating it via the Internet to other machines for it to be analyzed or even acted upon. It does away with the need for humans to sit in front of computer screens laboriously checking and responding to data.
Li insists it is unlikely to lead to a world where machines take over from humans.
"I don't think it is an artificial intelligence concept. I would not consider it part of machines taking over. It is about helping humans in making decisions. I don't foresee - very soon anyway - that it will lead to processes where there was no human involved," he said.
Li said that improvements in sensor technology and what they can detect and transmit is what is driving the pace of the IOT.
"There have been sensors existing for some time but because of innovation in semiconductor technology we can put a lot more intelligence into the chip and therefore more intelligent sensors become possible," he said.
Li, who is also chief technology officer of IBM Greater China Group, is one of the most respected figures in technology in China.
He leads IBM's research efforts in China, heading its research laboratories in Beijing and Shanghai.
He has spent more than 15 years with IBM in a number of disciplines but also has a background as a technology entrepreneur in his own right.
He admits to being excited by the potential of IOT, which was a concept developed at the Massachussets Institute of Technology in the late 1990s.
"It has a lot of practical uses. If you think how we manage traffic that is a typical Internet of Things application. If you know how vehicles are moving, you can understand the flow and volume and we can predict where congestion would be," he said.
"Another application would be in transportation, like high speed railways. You can check whether a train is rolling with the right balance in response to the different forces.
"The monitoring can be done by machines and also any reaction can be taken by the system and not humans."
Li believes IOT is a technology at its starting point and has huge potential for the future.
"We are some way along the road already but it could become a lot bigger. There are going to be more and more sensors and more and more intelligent sensors," he said.
He believes China could lead the world in the area and that is why IBM is investing so much of its research efforts in the country.
"It could be a major technology for IBM in China and that is why we launched the center here," he said.
The IOT Technology Center at the Zhongguancun Software Park will employ 200 people but it will be using expertise from throughout the entire IBM global network.
"It will not only be leveraging the brain power from scientists here but taking advantage of the advanced technologies from our global laboratories so it is difficult to calculate how many people will eventually be involved," he said.
Li said one of the purposes would be to look at other industrial areas where IOT might be applied.
"There are many applications today which weren't even thought of a few years back and there will be many more applications in future," he said.
"We have been working on this a long time and it is hard to think of anything new. That is why we are always keen for partners from academia and industry to join us to bring fresh ideas."
Li said there has already been a lot of commercial investment in the IOT in China.
"There have been a lot of applications in typical areas such as railways and the power grid but there are many other opportunities."
He believes a huge potential growth area could be in healthcare, helping deal with the increasing headache of meeting the demands of 1.3 billion people.
IOT is seen to have a particular role to play in preventive medicine, providing tailored plans for people so they avoid costly major illnesses, as well as other medical applications.
"If the IOT can be adopted in preventive care, there could be huge benefits to society," he said.
"If China could make a breakthrough in this area and lever on the Internet of Things and technology it could become a frontrunner in this area."
Li insists IOT is not some Frankenstein technology but a means of making valuable connections between objects.
"We are talking of natural objects created by God and also objects created by man such as buildings. It is a way of understanding these things and checking their status by collecting information about them," he said.