Key implications of the digital transformation

22nd September 2021
Joe Bush

Digital transformation is a term that is often used, and is at the forefront of many agendas. Though it is most often applied in a business context, the reach of the overall concept extends far beyond modern business practices - with the potential for creating long-lasting positive outcomes across all aspects of society. David Boswarthick, Director, New Technologies at ETSI explains further.

The ‘digitisation of everything’ is enabled by a wide range of both evolved and disruptive technologies, and will ultimately mean that the conventional ways of doing things can be superseded by new approaches which are inherently more efficient.

The following article examines some of the important technical innovations that are already contributing to the digital transformation. It also provides some examples of typical use cases and highlights the potential standardisation gaps that need to be treated in order to ensure full interoperability, security and effectiveness of these innovative technologies.

Principle benefits of digital

From an enterprise or industrial perspective, digital transformation enables a number of essential commercial objectives to be achieved more effectively. Among these is the optimisation of efficient workflows - so that product development projects can be completed within a shorter time frame, and services may be implemented much faster to customers. Consequently, potential new windows of opportunity may be addressed in a far more dynamic manner and prospective revenue streams tested before they are rolled out to market. Digital transformation is also instrumental in enabling enterprises to become more agile and responsive to evolving market demands and opportunities, enhancing the experiences provided to their customers whilst simultaneously improving the diversity and quality of the products and services.

For municipal organisations, such as cities, utilities and governmental organisations, the drivers may be somewhat different to those of the enterprise and industrial spheres. Here it is hoped that the advent of digital transformation will lead to the better use of resources and an optimisation of highly complex administrative processes. The application of digital technologies will be pivotal in lowering operational costs, as well as helping to reduce wastage levels. Likewise, curbing the impact their activities have on the environment will be another area that both the private and public sectors are keen to explore.

Technology trends

There are several technology trends that are interwoven into digital transformation and its future progression. These technology areas are briefly described below.

1. 5G mobile communication - This latest mobile communication generation is clearly going to be of paramount importance. The 3GPP Release 15 global standard meant that 5G New Radio (NR) could start to be defined (with allocation of new spectral bands, plus the introduction of beamforming and massive MIMO techniques). Release 16 continued the development of 5G NR and also provided functionality to an ever increasing community of vertical industries that could be addressed by 5G.

Work on Release 17 is continuing during 2021, with completion expected in the mid-2022 timeframe. Discussions on the scope of the future Release 18, that is named ‘5G Advanced’ are already underway. The evolution of the 5G standard means that, as well as much higher broadband capacity and a dramatically increased connectivity, the support for ultra-reliable low latency operations will also be provided, opening up new services and providing 5G connectivity as a connectivity solution for numerous vertical industries.

2. Artificial Intelligence (AI) - Increasing degrees of automation will be possible through the application of AI models. These will remove the need for human intervention, so that robots and other autonomous systems (including those that are remotely deployed) can make decisions for themselves, based on the available data and constantly updated machine learning algorithms. This will enable a multitude of applications such as the identification of potential terrorist threats via facial recognition of video footage, the investigation of biopsy samples to check for cancerous cells, or autonomous vehicles that are able to make evasive manoeuvres to protect passengers and pedestrians from harm.

While the standards mechanism around 5G is already well established, for AI there is still much that needs to be done. In addition, AI presents a multitude of different ethical issues in relation to what is the optimal course of action to take in certain life-threatening situations. There are still important data management/privacy and security questions that need to be examined, and these issues must be resolved if wide-spread public trust in AI is to be gained.

3. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) – From gaming to industrial applications, VR and AR are key technologies for many areas of digital transformation. Grouped under the umbrella term of eXtended reality (XR) these capabilities allow users, often situated in different geographic locations, to be able to interact with each other and also access real-time online information. This allows for collaborative working, playing and also safer interventions in industrial applications, such as maintenance of large aircraft, satellites, or nuclear power plants through the use of XR and real-time digital twins. On top of this, there are many educational and entertainment use cases currently under development. As the pervasiveness of VR/AR into different industry sectors continues, there is an increasing need for the products and services offered by different vendors to be interoperable and secure, through the development of global standards and frameworks.

4. Autonomous networks - Access to agile, adaptive and self-healing network infrastructure will be another cornerstone of digital transformation. Rather than the current fragmented and siloed solutions, convergence towards a single end-to-end network and fully automated service management architecture will be the eventual goal. This will allow network operators to rapidly and flexibly provision services in order to respond to evolving customer demands. With the onset of the virtualisation of network elements and the introduction of AI enabled Zero Touch network management, we are only at the beginning of this journey. However, with the inherent flexibility required to manage complex 5G (and beyond) networks, fully autonomous networks are an essential building block of Digital Transformation

5. The Internet of Things (IoT) - IoT technology and the numerous data acquisition and analytical possibilities that will stem from this, have been well publicised over the last decade. With large scale IoT roll-out now well underway, anxieties are growing about how the massive amounts of user data can be effectively processed, identified, stored and ultimately protected. Data must also be fully authenticated and kept secure from the threat of theft or manipulation by unauthorised third parties particularly when it is being used for training AI algorithms. The supporting infrastructure must therefore be suitably equipped with effective security mechanisms. In addition, interface protocols need to be put in place that will allow cross-domain integration.

6. Dynamic data - The massive amounts of rich contextual data that is compiled from billions of IoT nodes, and other sources, opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities and also potential risks. One opportunity is the construction of digital twins, which are virtual representations of complex real-world objects and systems. The use of massive digital twinning will mean that the intricacies of complex systems such as aircraft, automobiles or indeed entire cities may be digitally duplicated and issues that could otherwise impinge on their operational longevity identified well before they happen. This will enable the use of predictive maintenance, where early indicators can be interpreted to warn that a component part needs replacing (thereby avoiding an actual critical failure). Within various industry verticals, de-facto standards and agreed workflows relating to dynamic data have already emerged. Nevertheless, the operating costs of acquiring, conditioning and applying real-time data are still very high for each individual domain. When the ultimate goal of cross-domain interoperability can be achieved through the application of shared global standards then this will lead to greater economies of scale, as well as heightened transparency.

7. Cyber security - Although the integration and reliance on networked digital systems brings many advantages to modern society, there are also a number of associated risks and obstacles that must also be considered before deployment. The most notable of these is the increasing likelihood of cyber breaches in critical systems. The ways in which network architectures are implemented, with the emergence of the IoT, virtualisation and edge computing, will only serve to exacerbate the problem by expanding the potential attack surface that is available to a multitude of hackers. The scale and severity of such attacks seems destined to increase unless effective measures are taken from the outset of network design, from the chipset to the applications. New cryptographic mechanisms will need to be employed, such as identity-based, attribute-based and fully-homomorphic encryption.

8. Blockchain - Having gained considerable media hype, blockchain enables the secure and trusted sharing/management of digital transactions across a distributed environment (rather than needing to have everything centralised in one place). Though originally developed for the financial sector, there is potential for Permissioned Distributed Ledgers (PDLs) to be applied to a wide range of use cases (particularly those relating to the IoT). Among the challenges still to be addressed is the compliance with the regulatory requirements of each specific industry sectors where distributed ledger technology may be applied.

9. Quantum computing - The arrival of quantum computing has resulted in there being a whole new way via which data can be processed. Leveraging the principles of quantum mechanics means that complex analytical tasks can now be completed in a fraction of the time needed previously. Among the many places where it will find traction are genomic mapping, weather forecasting, financial risk analysis and many others. However, the ability of quantum computers to break the cryptographic security schemes that are currently deployed is a serious concern should this technology fall into the wrong hands.

10. Autonomous systems - Greater use of autonomous robotic hardware, such as collaborative robots (cobots), will revolutionise factory assembly lines and agricultural operations. Functions needing some degree of understanding or experience when it comes to particular situations (therefore being beyond the capabilities of more conventional robots) will no longer have to be undertaken by human operatives. As well as boosting productivity figures, this will have various other advantages. It will allow an upskilling of the workforce, as menial/dangerous tasks can be offloaded. Workers will not be placed in potentially dangerous environments, and long-term physical impairments (such as repetitive strain or back injuries) can be avoided.

From just the few examples of the technology trends provided here, it is clear that digital transformation will have a significant role to play in the shaping of the next era of our civilisation - allowing processes and procedures to be realised in a far more effective and autonomous manner. This has the potential to bring about huge socio-economic changes that, when applied correctly, may benefit the global population as a whole. Concerted efforts are now required to encourage the adoption of such digital tools, and globally acceptable technology standardisation will be at the foundation of this widespread transformation.

Through its numerous technical groups, ETSI has placed itself at the forefront of digital transformation, directly contributing to the advancement of initiatives in each of the areas described. ETSI is currently collaborating with major stakeholders and partners in order to define the relevant standards and establish the necessary frameworks for the societal and digital transformation. One example is the framework it is currently developing for testing the interoperability of adaptive networks. This can be applied equally to both AI models and edge computing hardware - to certify items sourced from different vendors and make certain that they will integrate with one another and can be easily interchanged. In addition, ETSI is looking to identify areas where there may be potential gaps in existing solutions and standards, and address them accordingly. Finally, to address the ethical dilemmas that some of the technologies behind digital transformation have associated with them (in particular AI), ETSI is working with other partners to ensure that the appropriate guidelines are formulated.

In order to further support and communicate the extensive work ETSI has been doing to enable widespread digital transformation, ETSI has recently published a comprehensive white paper describing the key evolving technology trends for the coming decade and their potential impact on society, services and standardisation.

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