Blending the physical with the virtual in our future world #HelloWorld15

Humankind has had such an impact on the planet that geologists are thinking about calling the era in which we live as the Anthropocene. This new epoch is being strengthened by digital technologies, where the virtual is blending with the physical world, said Nicolas Demassieux, head of research at Orange Labs speaking on day two of the #HelloWorld15 customer conference.

Innovations in hardware, artificial intelligence, infrastructure and connectivity are all helping drive this transformation by making the world smarter. Look at the Internet of things (IoT). The term was coined in the late 1990s and essentially means the autonomous communications of machines on the internet. This could mean sensors reporting back the state of weather to a central station which adjust irrigation levels, for example.

While people thought of connected refrigerators as a bit of a joke in 2000, everybody now takes the Internet of Things very seriously. IDC predicts that the IoT market will grow from $660 billion in 2014 to $1.7 trillion in 2020. But we are really only at the start of the IoT journey. Cisco calculated that in 2012 there were 8.7 billion connected objects, which represented 0.6% of all “things” in the world. By 2020 it predicts it will rise to 50 billion or 2.7% of all things, which is still a tiny proportion.

Endless possibilities

The possibilities offered by the wide connectivity of things are endless, says Demassieux. Look what is happening already now. Silicon is being embedded in textiles so that you can have smart clothing that senses the world around you. Manufacturing miniaturization is progressing dramatically so that you can have microscopic scale robots who can interact with the world as well as communicate.

So rather than the connected fridge being the poster child of the IoT revolution, Demassieux says something like an ordinary light switch is more appropriate. Although it still serves to turn a light on or off, by being connected it can send information, such as its state or the temperature.

Processing power is also driving smartness. “The performance and capability of artificial intelligence has exploded in the last three years. Applications such as facial recognition are improving dramatically through deep learning powered by the use of neural networks,” says Demassieux.

In fact processing power is increasing so quickly that Demassieux predicts that the network will become a bottleneck in the current model of networks and clouds. The solution is to put the processing closer to the user, creating an architecture of massively distributed computing. For example, mobile devices and smartphones will move from being an end-point to a node in the network.

“We are moving to massively distributed computing, but it must remain simple, secure and available,” says Demassieux. Part of the enabler for this will be the creation of programmable and software-driven networks, which will come to fruition within the next decade.

Ambient connectivity

Wireless networks also need to take a new approach to handle the connectivity requirements of the Internet of things. Whereas 4G networks were conceived to provide high bandwidth to smartphones, 5G networks will also need to provide connectivity to a massive number of devices with much lower bandwidth demands.

“5G is the road to truly ambient connectivity,” says Demassieux. “5G isn’t simply an improved 4G, it needs to address energy efficiency as a priority. That is because energy will be one of the bottlenecks for wireless in the future, and we need to move from spectral efficiency to energy efficiencies. 5G in 2020 will provide ambient connectivity: low energy, real time and everywhere.”

Ambient connectivity, massive processing power and connected devices will all combine to merge the physical and the digital by transforming the Internet. “The Internet today is like a big brain that knows lots of things, but has little understanding of the real world,” says Demassieux. “Now when you have sensors everywhere the Internet can sense the world, and with robots and actuator they have muscles, which means the Internet can actually interact with the physical world.” Welcome to the future!

You can read more thoughts from Orange Labs and Nicolas Demassieux on the blog at

Anthony Plewes

After a Masters in Computer Science, I decided that I preferred writing about IT rather than programming. My 20-year writing career has taken me to Hong Kong and London where I've edited and written for IT, business and electronics publications. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Stewart Baines where I continue to write about a range of topics such as unified communications, cloud computing and enterprise applications.