Dell reinvents itself for the IoT era by making the right connections
Michael Dell on the ethical challenges now facing tech firms as everything becomes connected
Head of Dell’s new IoT division Ray O’Far: “We’ve made a business out of storing and processing the world’s most valuable data.”
Dell chief executive Michael Dell feels responsibility for the ethical frameworks or regulation around the IoT and the data it generates, falls squarely into the lap of society itself and individual governments. Photograph: Robert Lever/Getty Images
From hipster, hydroponically-grown designer kale to a Grey’s Anatomy-level story of a race against time to save an infant’s life using state of the art genomic sequencing, Dell’s vision for the Internet of Things (IoT) reveals that its strength lies in an astute choice of partnerships and start-up investments that brings Dell technology into all aspects of a connected world.
Ray O’Farrell, the head of Dell’s new IoT division put it succinctly: “We’ve made a business out of storing and processing the world’s most valuable data. There’s not a company we won’t partner with in order to build better solutions for our customers.”
Now, “solutions” is one of those tech jargon words that can rub folks the wrong way and indicate that they are about to be bored to tears. And there is nothing drier than a technology event where the keynote speaker rattles off server specs and performance stats to an audience.
But when you are selling practical (albeit cutting-edge) devices and services, it doesn’t attract round-the-block queues and frenzied tweeting like the iPhone X. Dell knows this and shrewdly chooses to sell a vision of a brave new connected world rather than directly flogging the infrastructure that will support it.
Sitting in the audience at Dell’s Internet of Things strategy event in New York last week, it felt as though the future of food, healthcare, security, smart cities and practically everything relied on getting the underlying infrastructure right.
Moogsoft, a company in Dell’s investment portfolio that specialises in machine learning for IT operations, jumped right in by reminding us of the existential threats to humankind including antibiotic resistance, world hunger, and climate change.
Exciting but what the devil has this got to do with IoT and machine learning, I began to think. Moogsoft co-founder and chief executive Phil Tee explained that it “feels like there is a limit to the capacity for human genius to break through these problems and we need an industrial revolution 2.0 that extends the current reach of [the] brain with the thinking computer”. And you guessed it, the thinking computer needs the right network technologies as well as the requisite AI.
Another fascinating investment choice by Dell is Edico Genome, a company that has developed a computer chip exclusively for processing DNA sequencing data. “For researchers to find cures to genetic diseases and doctors to find treatments for patients whose illnesses have a genetic aspect, DNA data has to be processed to mean something to a researcher or physician,” explained vice president Gary Nealey.
Edico Genome has developed Dragen, the world’s first bioinformatics processor with the ability to sequence an entire genome in 20 minutes. Before this, the process would take somewhere between three and five days. Theses processors, which sit inside a Dell server, have processed 17 petabytes of human genetic information to date and are at the forefront of a revolution in personalised medicine.
“It currently costs around $400 to get your entire genome analysed and this will drop in coming years,” said Mr Nealey. “This is the tip of the iceberg and we are just scratching the surface in terms of our understanding of how these gene expressions act in concert. Down the road, I see the ability to go to a kiosk at the local mall and get your entire genomic analysis back; that’s where it’s going.”
Mr Nealey went on to give an example of the rapid genomic diagnosis that is possible for a critically ill newborn. Between preparing the DNA sample, sequencing and analysis Edico Genome in partnership with Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City made a life-saving diagnosis in 26 hours – a Guinness World Record.
Another aim of the event was to smash the “cloud computing is everything” mindset. The Internet of Things will require onsite data processing and analytics if almost everything from our cars and houses to wind turbines and farm equipment has connected sensors yielding rich and voluminous data that needs to be fed back into the system in real time.
Addressing the audience, chief executive Michael Dell explained that this form of “edge computing” or on-board analysis of data is crucial when, for example, a deer jumps out in front of your autonomous car; there isn’t time to send visual, speed, location and all other crucial data to the cloud and wait for a decision on what to do next – it needs to be computed on the spot. A near future of connected devices, buildings, people and places requires devices that can “think” both on the ground and in the cloud.
Anyway, we should be thinking cow computing rather than cloud computing. Agriculture firm Chitale Group uses Dell technology and radio-frequency identification tags on its herds to keep tabs on thirsty bovines and get water to them as quickly as possible. Or maybe even go vegetarian to feed the world more efficiently? David Rosenberg, chief executive of Dell customer Aerofarms, talked about how the IoT is helping his hydroponic vertical farming start-up disrupt the agriculture industry.
“We yield 170 times the productivity of a regular farm with 95 per cent less water and zero pesticides, fungicides, herbicides,” said Mr Rosenberg, explaining that their kale is softer, more nutritious and tastes better than standard kale (thankfully) because it uses IoT technology to monitor sensors collecting data on everything from the temperature, sunlight, nutrients, time of day, etc. to see what conditions yield the best strains.
These are all really cool examples of how the IoT impacts on the world around us but what are the ethical ramifications of all these sensors gathering, storing and processing (by way of AI technologies) all this data? What responsibilities do or should all of the companies involved have? We asked Mr Dell for his thoughts on this.
“We are actively involved in all the discussions that happen on a societal level and what I can tell you is that I very much think it is a society by society decision. In one sense, it is easy to say that the technology is the problem but I think the technology is the solution,” Mr Dell told The Irish Times.
Mr Dell feels that responsibility for the ethical frameworks or regulation around the IoT and the data it generates, falls squarely into the lap of society itself and individual governments.
“Societies will have to make choices. Those aren’t technology choices – they are more societal decisions. We are an active participant in that but we don’t really decide. And so we will advocate on behalf of our customers and what we believe is the right thing but ultimately these are the decisions of society and governments.”
“When you think about issues of privacy and security, those are clearly decisions that societies and government will make and we will see this playing out all around us,” he added.
When asked if the ethical responsibilities of technology companies were now very different compared to 20 years ago when it was just about selling PCs, Dell conceded that the role technology plays “in medicine, the environment, all aspects of society is greater than it was” and will continue to do so in the future but tempered this by invoking “human fascination with bad outcomes as it relates to change”.
“There are all these horrific stories [in science fiction] about the bad things that could happen in the future – The Terminator, Skynet, Blade Runner 2049 – but if you step back and look at it technology has been an amazing force for good.
“While there are always risks and challenges related to new things, generally the outcomes have been way better for humans than not. If you go all the way back to original technologies like fire or the wheel, you could say that they created some new jobs and destroyed some old ones.
And just in case the journalists present had hurtled from concerns over ethical use of data to outright Neo-Luddism, he added: “At some level, you have to reflect on if you are on the right side of history by trying to prevent the advances of technology – I don’t think that’s going to work out too well.”