Technology

Fourth industrial revolution lands in Sydney

It has been touted at the "fourth industrial revolution" - a fusion of the physical, digital and biological worlds through the "Internet of Everything".

"We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another," Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, told the gathering in Davos last month. "In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before."

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Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull launches the National Farmers Federation's innovation hub for agricultural technologies in December. Courtesy ABC News 24.

And if information technology company Cisco has its way, Sydney will be one of the global centres of this transformation.

An unlikely alliance of NSW Primary Industries, National Farmers Federation and NSW Farmers with Cisco, CSIRO's Data 61 and the University of NSW on Monday launched Innovation Central Sydney.

This Sydney hub will join eight other centres in Perth, Barcelona, Berlin, London, Rio, Songdo (Korea), Tokyo and Toronto.

The centre was launched by Australia's Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel. He was joined by NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer Mary O'Kane, the NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Niall Blair, and Ken Boal, from Cisco Australia New Zealand.

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The strategic focus for the Sydney innovation hub will be agriculture and smart cities. Cisco's Perth hub has its focus on resources and astronomy.

Dr Finkel told the launch: "The Internet of Things isn't just a refrigerator connected to the internet. It is deep, it is complex and it is transformational." But he also warned: "Keep in mind that like new medicines, everything good in technology has the potential for adverse side effects."

At the heart of "Industry 4.0" are the unprecedented economic opportunities offered by digitisation, data and the connection of autonomous machines through the internet of everything. 

By the turn of the century there were about 200 million objects connected via the internet - mainly human-operated personal computers. "By 2013 that number had mushroomed to 10 billion," said Kevin Bloch, chief technology officer for Cisco Australia New Zealand.

Cisco expects that by 2020 there will be 50 billion devices connected by the internet - many of these being machine-to-machine connections.

"The potential applications are astounding," says Mark Hoffman, UNSW dean of engineering. "If you add computer chips, sensors and networking to anything - fridges, cars, bus stops, traffic lights, pacemakers - they can communicate with you via smartphones and computers. The car can tell you the oil is low, or your fridge can order milk online."

Mr Bloch said that developing cognitive systems that allow transformation from human-scale to larger and faster machine-scale projects will be critical. The amount of data produced by the fourth industrial revolution will be massive. 

By way of example he points to the Square Kilometre Array, the world's largest radio telescope, which Cisco is helping develop. "When this goes online, it will produce more data in five minutes than exists on the entire internet right now."

Developing "cognitive systems" - automated, or even intelligent, processes to manage this data - will be critical, whether this be for astronomy, smart cities, agriculture, energy consumption, or pollution management.

"This is not about theory. This is about solving real problems," said Mr Bloch.

Alasdair Macleod sits at the other end of the spectrum from radio astronomy. He breeds beef cattle in the New England tablelands. His company, Maia Technology, is developing software to manage grass-fed cattle.

"Because of environmental and health concerns, beef has been getting a bad rap," he said. "And this has shifted consumers towards grass-fed beef, particularly in the US."

Mr Macleod said it is much harder to measure how much feed is used to grow beef if they are grass-fed rather than lot-fed.

"The software is designed to enable the grazier to measure how much grass is needed for a quantity of beef," he said. "This is particularly important in drought-affected areas."

At the moment the amount of grass feed relies on farmers' estimates, which he says is "good enough".

However, he said data from drones or satellites cold make this more accurate.

"It's all about turning data into decision-making tools for farmers," Mr Macleod said.

One company that is taking data to the skies is PropellorAero. This start-up, based at the Innovation Centre at the Australian Technology Park, is developing remote management of sites for mining, landfill and construction companies. 

Francis Vierboom from PropellorAero said: "A company can remotely manage inventory on a site without someone walking up and down with a clipboard.

"Or a mining company could get a three-dimensional model of their site after a storm." This allows them to manage the site for safety or loss." 

Ken Boal, vice-president of Cisco Australia New Zealand said: "The aim of Innovation Central Sydney is to turn innovation into real commercial solutions, based on 'Internet of Things' [technology] in agriculture, smart cities and transportation."

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