Technology trends will affect all of us both on a personal level and a professional level. Creating a vision of the future for the Welder is one of the central aims of our e-zine, The WelderDestiny Compass. It is therefore obvious that we will spend quite a bit of time exploring the current technology trends to anticipate how these will affect the job of the Welder in the future.
This web page is essentially a compendium of articles published in The WelderDestiny Compass that deals with technology trends. It assists those that want to follow our discussion regarding technology trends without having to actually read all the back issues of The WelderDestiny Compass. It will be updated every time we discuss technology trends.
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As you read the compendium of the technology trends articles within this page, please keep in mind that these articles also have reference to other articles within the same e-zine edition in which they were originally published. This may make the different articles below appear a little disjointed. If you would like to see the broader context of any specific article, please click through to the full e-zine to get a more complete picture.
The other advantage of looking at the whole e-zine is that there may be supporting articles posted there by some of our readers, and their insights may just be what you are looking for.
While some people think of artificial intelligence in terms of “sentient” robots, I believe this is still rather far off. Some people believe that all we need for sentience is that computing power needs to get as great as that of the human brain. This is projected to occur around 2025 or so. After having read some commentaries by people on the front line of AI research and development, I think that this is a simplistic view of sentience, and that it will take a lot longer to achieve. (If ever)
None-the-less, when we talk about AI here, we are talking about computers that are able to learn and interact with humans in a meaningful way. Using this definition of AI, we can see that we are already almost there.
The “top of the road” AI’s like IBM’s “Watson” are able to learn to solve very complex problems. There are also a number of “mainstream” AI programs such as Apple’s SIRI that is getting to a point where they are able to interact with humans and learn. All the major technology companies are working on AI systems, so this is an area that will be moving rather quickly into the near future.
While AI technology has the potential to replace human workers in just about any job, the easiest jobs to replace are actually knowledge workers. It will also be the most effective use of AI technology, because knowledge work is actually where computers are pretty good, and humans are actually not so good.
My take, is that most people will end up with their own personal AI. This AI will be able to monitor our lifestyles and learn what we like and therefore be able to support us. To see how this could work, let us look at healthcare, as that is a sector that affects us all.
The current healthcare system really is a “generic sick care” system, when you think about it carefully. (We will also discuss this in future e-zines.) Doctors rarely diagnose people, they diagnose illnesses. They do not treat the patient to remove the cause of the illness. The doctor treats the illness by prescribing some pill or other to “compensate” for the symptoms. (A generalization I know, but not entirely inaccurate.) A doctor typically only wants to spend around 15 minutes when we go to see him/her. They also have a living to make, and spending a couple of hours per patient will just not be economically feasible for them.
Now, if we each have our own AI, then when we go to visit the doctor, our AI will talk to the Doctor’s AI, communicating our lifestyle factors to the doctor’s AI. The doctor’s AI will have access to our medical histories, genetic records and any trends in pathology results, and can form a diagnosis and treatment plan. Most of the time, the “treatment” would not necessarily include medicine, but rather recommendations of how to change our lifestyles. Our AI’s will then be our support system to help us follow the recommendations.
The AI will not replace all doctors, but it will mean that far fewer doctors, assisted with AI’s, could more effectively treat many more patients. Now think how such a model could be implemented in almost all “knowledge based” services.
Our previous version of The WelderDestiny Compass looked at artificial intelligence. This week's technology topic of "machine learning vision systems" is very much connected to artificial intelligence, although this week's topic is a bit more focused regarding its application.
To date, one of the biggest shortcomings of computer based systems have been their limited ability to "see" and use that information to learn for the future. This is one of the greatest human strengths, and if you think about it, this actually takes a lot of computational power to achieve. In fact, from this perspective, the human brain is an amazing computational device. (Okay, for the animal lovers, let me say it... The animal brain in general is an amazing computation device.)
In the last while, great strides have been made in vision systems. This is evidenced by facial recognition technology, (been through customs at the big international airports lately?) and the technology used to identify cars speeding along the freeways of the world. IBM also offers a service, based on their Watson AI platform, to categorize and interpret images for clients. While these systems are good at matching what they "see" to data in a database, they are not systems that “learn” from what they see in a "real time" sense.
There is however a new technology on the market that is based on a neural network computer chip, that is very good at not only the vision part, but also learning from what is seen. It can identify patterns and behaviours from a video feed. The company developing this technology sells it to the casino industry. They use this technology to keep an eye on the card tables (e.g. black jack) to see if the dealers are "making mistakes". (mistakes, yeah, wink wink) These systems will learn the rules from looking at how the dealers work, and will then be able to detect if anybody "makes a mistake". If you think about this, you start to see how revolutionary this is. Not only can the system discern between different cards, but it can also learn the rules of the game, and discern if the card is being drawn from the right place in the deck.
This technology obviously has huge application in any sort of surveillance scenario, so beware, big brother is watching! Not only will it be able to recognise faces, but it can learn over time what it looks like when somebody is acting in a suspicious manner, and then alert the necessary authorities to investigate. Our interest here in The WelderDestiny Compass is however concerned with applications revolving around how this technology can monitor industrial processes such as welding and the potential applications in inspection of the results.
Can you think of how this technology can influence you or your job?
The internet of things (IoT) is a term that is often used today. In essence it refers to devices being connected to the internet, rather than just computers. Now having said this, we need to understand that any device that is able to send and receive data over the internet, does contain a computer of some or other description. In essence then, the IoT is really how computers are being embedded into everyday devices and objects, which are then connected to the internet to send and receive useful data.
The typical IoT device we think of is the fridge that has a built-in touch screen through which you can easily submit shopping requests, or that can even place certain shopping items (like milk) onto your shopping list, which would then be available on your smart phone when you go to the store.
Other typically expected IoT devices would be any home appliance that has its own diagnostic system that could alert the manufacturer when something is wrong, or through which the manufacturer could remotely access the device to try to diagnose any problems you may be experiencing. Think clothes washing machine or dish washing machine as examples.
Once we start to think about it, we realise that just about anything could end up being part of the IoT. The only real requirements would be that there are sensors to collect useful information, and that the device has a computer and interface to the internet.
Within this context, we can see how wearable technology like smart watches could provide data to our own future artificial intelligence computers, and also to companies that are collecting data for analysis and “resale” purposes.
Imagine what information you could get from “smart shoes” that analyse what your gait is like, and can anticipate future foot problems and provide you with suggestions to modify your gait, or to use specific shoes aimed at minimising any problems. Imagine what the medical fraternity could do with that information when collected across thousands of people.
Another issue with the IoT is the sheer volume of data collected, that would need to be stored for analysis. It would be huge. Already data storage companies are positioning themselves to take advantage of this market. These cloud storage companies are already big, just based on the current internet activities, but they will need to grow exponentially to be ready for the IoT data avalanche.
So, the main attractions of the IoT are:
Based on these two broad categories of how the data from the devices can be used, we can see that numerous business models are possible for companies that move into the IoT data space.
No conversation about the IoT would be complete without the obvious down sides to this trend. The obvious down sides are the potential loss of personal privacy and associated constant surveillance, and also the potential for hacking and theft of our devices and data. Around these areas there are also large industries being established.
Can you think of how the internet of things can impact your job? How can it be useful, and how could it be a threat to your job?
The best-known cryptocurrency is bitcoin. Bitcoin was created in October 2008, when the “inventor” published the invention. It was implemented in January 2009. Bitcoin has all the attributes of a gold based currency system, excepting that it is electronic in form, rather than physical.
Electronic money is not new. Most of our own money is just an electronic entry on the computers of financial institutions. The difference with bitcoin is that payment can be made between individuals in an electronic form, without any financial institution being involved. It is like handing over a piece of gold as payment for a good or service. As with gold, you do not need a bank to be involved to settle the transaction.
The technology that allows this “peer-to-peer” transaction to take place is called the “blockchain”. The way this works is that the “wallet” of the person handing over the bitcoin sends the information regarding the transaction to a multitude of servers on the internet. The wallet of the person receiving the bitcoin also sends the information of the transaction. Once the servers match the two sides of the transaction, and confirm that all the information “ties-up”, then the transaction is finalized by being recorded. The record is added to an ever-increasing chain of such records. Each transaction and its associated information is recorded as a “block” within this chain of transactions. The mechanism used to make it part of the “blockchain”, is of such a nature that it cannot be subsequently removed without detection.
The bitcoin system is also structured in such a way that there is a natural limit to the number of bitcoins that can be created (“mined”). Once this limit is reached, there will be no more bitcoins created ever! If bitcoin was used as the sole international currency and all other currencies were withdrawn, then we see that over time, as economies grow, there will need to be a natural deflation. This may or may not be a problem, depending on where you stand on economic theory and debt.
A lot of people just cannot get comfortable with the idea of such “electronic money”, but the concept of the money being electronic is actually not the difficult part. The difficult part is grasping why anybody would accept bitcoin in exchange for something of real value. The difference between “normal money” (which also has no value) and bitcoin is that national currencies have been legislated as “legal tender”. In short, you may not refuse payment in legal tender when it is offered in exchange for a good or service or settlement of a debt. The government also requires you to pay your taxes in the legal tender, so you basically have little choice in the matter.
Obviously, governments are nervous of the popularising of bitcoin, but they also like all the advantages of these cryptocurrencies. The main disadvantage is that the government does not control the bitcoin currency. Most of the major central banks are in the process of developing their own cryptocurrencies. The main difference of such “national cryptocurrencies” is that the central banks will be the parties that “keep the ledger”. They will also be able to increase the amounts of their own cryptocurrencies, as they would like. They would also be able to structure the system in such a way that the parties making the transactions are not anonymous.
I therefore believe that the issuing of legal tender cryptocurrencies is just a matter of time. What will happen to bitcoin at that point is anybody’s guess, as governments may effectively criminalise the use of bitcoin. This will probably be “sold” as being necessary to prevent crime and terrorism.
What flows out of this cryptocurrency movement is that the blockchain mechanism can actually be used to record any “durable” transactions. As an example, the transfer of ownership of property can be recorded by use of a similar blockchain technology. If this happens, how many lawyers and conveyancing people will be left jobless? How efficient will a property sale transaction become? Will it take hours rather than months to settle?
In Star Trek, the characters often spend time on the “hollo deck” where they experience a totally interactive virtual reality world. This picture of virtual reality will probably never be achieved, given that the “holograms” are so real that they are solid, and could potentially kill you.
Virtual Reality (VR) as applied to what our brain perceives, is however very much a technology that is already starting to reach the point where it is making great inroads in gaming. It is also making waves in the engineering and construction fields.
It is quite possible to take a tour of what your future home will look like, before you have even built it. If you don’t like what you see, then you can get the necessary changes made.
Augmented Reality (AR) is probably the biggest potential within the engineering field. In AR, we still have the virtual reality technology, but it is integrated with our physical environment. In other words, some artificial reality elements are introduced into our physical environment, so that it is difficult or impossible to tell which parts are real, and which parts are virtual.
Obviously, augmenter reality (AR) will be big in gaming, emergency drills and military exercises, but how will it affect us in the welding industry, and particularly the Welder?
Modern welding equipment is being designed in a different way than the past. As an example, in the past the core of a welding power source would be designed, and then any sensors that were needed were added, almost as an afterthought. (e.g. Volt and Amp meter) Modern power sources are designed around the sensors that will be needed to make the modern power source viable and competitive within a connected and computerised world. This trend will only increase in the future. Eventually the sensors and what they allow the welding power source to achieve, will be the real selling point of future welding power sources.
Not only will the welding power sources have many embedded sensors. As mentioned in previous editions of The WelderDestiny Compass, there is a lot of potential in sensors associated with the visual analysis of the weld in real time, that would typically be embedded in the welding helmet.
In future editions of The WelderDestiny Compass, we will look at several sensors and technologies that could be used to achieve our aim of increasing efficiency while reducing risk.
Today we look at field material analysis. Currently the two main technologies for material analysis in the field are X-Ray fluorescence (XRF) and optical emission spectroscopy. (OES) Of the two, OES is superior in terms of safety and analytical ability. This is because OES does not require the use of dangerous X-Rays, and can analyse for almost all elements that we would be interested in. XRF cannot detect the lighter elements such as Carbon, Sulphur and Phosphorous, which are very important for predicting the outcomes of the welding operation.
OES works by using an arc to vaporize a very thin layer of the surface of the material, and then analysing the optical emission given off by the high energy vaporized atoms. It starts looking like it is not that much of a stretch of the imagination that this equipment could be incorporated into a detector that could be made small enough to use on a “real-time” basis during certain welding operations such as Gas Tungsten Arc Welding. (GTAW)
This makes sense, because we already have the equipment to create an arc that will vaporize the material, and we already have the necessary shielding gasses (Argon) to shield the arc from interference from atmospheric effects.
Is the ability to perform real time chemical analysis of the weld pool composition just around the corner? I believe so!
To understand how a physical object works, we generally need to take a look and figure it out. When there are obstacles in our way, so that we are unable to see directly, then we need to make another plan. As a typical example, we can consider the human body. For us to figure out what is going on inside it, we cannot just look, because it is not possible for us to look through the skin, muscle and bone.
We can however “see” inside the human body by using X-Rays. Unfortunately, this does actually result in some rather unfortunate damage to the human tissue, but hey, we can see what is going on!
We can also use ultrasonics to “see” what is happening inside the human body. Luckily that does a lot less damage than X-Rays. We can also use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to see what is happening inside the human body.
Much of the progress we have made in the last decade in understanding how the human brain works, has been due to us being able to “see” inside it using MRI. In fact, much of the advances in many fields have been possible due to us having developed some kind of technology and associated detectors and sensors to help us visualize what is happening in hitherto hidden places.
Comic books (sorry, graphic novels) have long had superheroes with the ability to look through things. Like superman with his X-Ray vision. While I have yet to meet somebody that has “unaided” X-Ray vision, this ability is now commonplace for those with access to the right technology.
The medical fraternity uses imaging technologies such as X-Ray, ultrasonics and MRI to take a look inside the human body. In the welding industry, we use X-Rays, gamma rays, ultrasonics, eddy currents and several other technologies to take a look inside welds and base metals. Especially in the case of ultrasonics, some of the newer techniques can construct a 3-dimensional image of the weld, showing us the presence of defects.
Imagine how effective you as a Welder could be if you could look at the weld and associated base metal while you are performing the welding, and “see” what is happening inside it. What if you could have “X-Ray vision” that shows you when you have a defect embedded in the weld, or possibly some lack of penetration within the root of the weld?
The old saying goes:
"God made men, but Sam Colt made them equal. Col. Samuel Colt’s revolver continues to serve as an equalizer. Being bigger, tougher and meaner than the next guy may not mean jack spit if the next guy carries a .357 in his waistband."
Don't worry, in today's The WelderDestiny Compass we are not going to enter the messy world of the gun debate. We are merely drawing a parallel.
Just as a gun in the hand of a weak person equalizes a physical fight with a strong person, so robots remove the labour cost advantage that economies with low wages have over those with high wages.
As capital expenses for the robots start shifting cost of production from labour to capital, robots remove the incentive for companies to establish manufacturing operations in low wage economies. The cry that it is unfair that all the manufacturing is moving to China or Vietnam, or wherever, will come to an end.
At the same time, even in the low wage economies, wage rates will rise more rapidly, because "the edge" of that economy will no longer be low labour costs. It will be productivity through the use of machines. The same as everywhere else.
The focus of the future manufacturing organisation will no longer be labour costs. It will be the most efficient tax and capital structures, along with access to "support services" and markets. Access to markets (customers) being the biggest driver.
It would probably be a good exercise for us to revisit issue #005 of The WelderDestiny Compass to set the scene for todays discussion. Click here to view Issue #005 of The WelderDestiny Compass...
To sum up, we discussed bitcoin as a cryptocurrency, and the enabling technology underpinning this cryptocurrency. This enabling technology is called blockchain technology, or simply "the blockchain".
In simple terms, the blockchain is a distributed ledger that records all the transactions and encodes it on a whole lot of different servers around the world. This ledger is totally open and freely available to all, so it would be evident if anybody tampers with it in any single location.
We speculated that the "open" cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin would probably be declared illegal at some point in the future. This has not happened yet, but we do notice some reports in the media about how bitcoins are being used in illegal transactions such as receiving payments for blackmail and ransom. This is typically part of the process for declaring something illegal. Watch this space...
Regardless of the future of the cryptocurrency, the blockchain technology is now out of "Pandora's box" and free in the world. The speed with which it is being embraced is breathtaking.
A platform for utilising the inherent advantages of blockchain technology, and allowing it to be used as the basis for all kinds of formalised systems and applications has reached the point where it is commercially viable. It is called Ethereum. There may be other platforms in development, but the Ethereum platform has all the bells and whistles needed for the blockchain technology to explode, so we will use it for our discussion.
While there are quite a few things that Ethereum does differently to the bitcoin blockchain, the main addition is that the Ethereum blockchain allows code to be embedded into the blockchain, which is associated with that particular "transaction" in the blockchain.
In Ethereum speak, it is called a "contract". If certain conditions are met, then the code runs, which then makes something else happen. As an example, the code may state that if there is a transaction created that "approves" some kind of action or happening in the real world, then a certain amount of the currency is transferred to somebody else's account. This is obviously very handy for transactions where people don't know each other, and only want to pay for some goods or service once they have received the good or service.
Theoretically the code can do anything, so it does not have to only be associated with payments. Imagine that you can now write an "App" that does something once the right conditions have been met. Something like issuing a "certificate" or "release note". If you embed this app in the blockchain, then you can do just about anything when the code is "triggered" by the right conditions.
Suddenly it becomes possible to have an entirely distributed QA/QC system for manufacturing critical high value equipment. The system would allow certain parts of the code to run in a private location, so not everything will be visible to everyone, but the parts that we would want to make sure are not "tampered" with, can be made public so that nobody can "fudge the facts".
Are you starting to see where this is going...