Online interview with CEO of NetObjex Raghu Bala on loT, AI and Blockchainby Henry Chan | 31/01/2019
Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of interrelated computing devices, sensors, or objects that can communicate, connect and exchange data with other devices on the same network. Some of the groundbreaking advancements for technology in recent year are Artificial intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain. And combining these three technologies together had fired the onset of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” and bring transformation to many traditional industries.
We recently conducted an interview with Raghu Bala, the CEO of NetObjex, a start up that utilizing Articifical Intelligence, Distributed Ledgers and loT into one single platform, who also teaches MIT Sloan School of Business/Computer Science and AI Laboratory’s course on the Implications of Artificial Intelligence on Business, as well as a Tutor for MIT’s Blockchain course.
What is so special about NetObjex? How do you differentiate yourself in the market?
There are a few things that sets us apart from the competition:
· NetObjex is one of very few entities that does not view IoT, AI and Blockchain as discrete technologies but as part of a continuum. Our Software-as-a Service (SaaS) platform helps automate processes in multiple vertical domains (insurance, finance, supply chain, logistics, healthcare, smart cities etc) by using IoT for data acquisition, AI for Machine Learning, and Blockchain for sharing data, transactions within an ecosystem. All of this happens in real-time through an intelligent bus that routes data from the edge to the cloud and blockchain. A lot of people ask me – why not just use Amazon AWS. Well, Amazon provides you bricks and cement and you can build a house. We give you the key and you can start living. Theirs is a framework. We are a turnkey system.
· While there is a lot of noise about Blockchain and AI in the media, few realize that both those technologies feed off of good quality data. So, data acquisition is key and this is where IoT comes in. It links the physical world to the virtual world. We introduced a Programmable, Secure Gateway device this year as part of our platform, called the PiQube at CES 2019 in Las Vegas. This device supports up to 108 analog and digital Inputs and Outputs, supports a plethora of communication protocols (Ethernet,Wifi, LoRa, Sigfox, NB-IOT, 3G, 4G, and more) and communicates with sensors (wired and wireless). It has use cases in multiple domains. Why it is critical is that it supports the last mile which AI and Blockchain can’t reach. Please refer to this great HBR article on https://hbr.org/2018/06/what-blockchain-cant-do. So, we are different because we offer an end to end solution combining IoT, AI and Blockchain.
· We believe the new systems that we build do not live in a vacuum. They have to co-exist with the big investments corporations have made in systems such as SAP, Oracle, SugarCRM and others. We have an Enterprise Gateway that enables bi-directional communication with incumbent systems.
The following diagram encapsulates our platform in a nutshell.
What is the long-term vision of netObjex?
As devices become autonomous and semi-autonomous, device to device transactions will become huge, dwarfing the current giants like Alibaba and Amazon.I am talking of the world where your car talks to the parking meter, toll booth, fast food kiosk on its own; or a drone dropping off a package and getting a sign off from a drone base station just like your Fed-Ex or DHL man would do. This requires a whole new way of thinking. NetObjex as the name implies are all these objects around us which become smart and start talking to one another and performing discovery, authentication, communication and transaction without human intervention. We have taken a major step in this direction with the development of a Data Marketplace which will hit the market in Q2, 2019. It is ledger agnostic, devices can talk and transact with one another. We did a preview of it at the Swiss Energy Hackathon in late 2018 where energy producing devices (wind, solar, hydro) were selling to energy consuming devices via ERC 721 tokens in a marketplace. We just inked a contract with a company in Asia to take this platform globally. So, data marketplaces are the future.
Who are the existing types of companies that are using your services?
The numbers are impressive. 9 OEM companies in 4 continents, using a B2B2C model reaching 2MM end customers daily on zero marketing. We are very close to signing the next set of OEMs. We are instrumenting ecosystems in Smart Cities to Education, Supply Chain to Automotive. To us, they boil down to the same thing. They are all Digital Assets; they all collect data/actuate via IOT, process it via AI, store/transact/disseminate/transact via blockchain.
Why blockchain is so important in the future?
One has to be a historian to understand the significance of Blockchain. Many don’t realize that the very first Industrial Revolutions relied on the Railroad Industry. It provides a great analogy and almost a crystal ball into what is in store. In the Railroad industry, the first people were the people building the actual tracks. These are companies like Ethereum, NEM, IOTA, NEO etc. They are the rails. Same thing happened with the Internet. Remember Global Crossing? They laid a lot of the underwater pipes for the Internet we use today. Next come the trains. NetObjex is a train. We are ledger agnostic. We run on any rail using our DQL (Distributed Query Language similar to SQL for databases) technology and have drivers for several ledgers. Just like a train carried goods and people on the rails, we carry academic, financial, healthcare and other records on different rails. So, Blockchain is important to a “Train” company like us because a Train is useless without the rails. However, just remember history is a good teacher. Nobody remembers the guys who built the rails. No one remembers Global Crossing and the guys who laid the pipes for the Internet. It is the guys who ran the trains (Amazon, Netflix, Google, etc) that won. Same way, we believe NetObjex will thrive as we are on the right path.
How partnership across different industries enable your firm to capture more new opportunities for utilizing the Internet of Things (loT)?
Very astute question. IoT is a great conduit technology that transcends the physical and virtual worlds. The Fitbit on your wrist links you to your Digital Twin in the cloud. Same way, we provide the glue between various processes in Healthcare, Automotive and more where we leverage IOT devices to bridge the gap between these two worlds. The data captured has to be clean and pristine and this is where our PiQube offering plugs a massive hole in the industry. We have used Gateway devices in the market – they are all woefully inadequate and now we have introduced a last-mile technology that solves multiple issues in data capture.
What is Digital Twin Operating Platform, and what are the typical challenge in implementing such solution?
Let’s begin by defining what a Digital Twin is. A lot of us do not realize we have a Digital Twin. Yes – it is your persona on LinkedIn or Facebook. It is your Digital Twin. So, before we can facilitate, for instance, a simple transaction between a Car and a Parking Meter, we have to have Digital Twins for both those objects. In the physical world, the Car and Parking Meter may discover each other through terrestrial protocols such as Bluetooth or 5G. But once they decide to transact with one another, that would happen through their Digital twin where the Car may pay the Parking meter X amount of Ethereum for access to a spot for N minutes.
What inspired you to start this business?
I am a serial entrepreneur and have been part of several startups as either a founder or co-founder. The decision to start a business wasn’t a major decision. I am driven by passion and not a paycheck. My belief is if you do the right things, work hard, good things will eventually happen. We felt IoT-AI-Blockchain were converging and that a platform to encapsulate this interaction would be something that would help the world. Profit will come but you need to make yourself relevant first, and we are firmly focused on that journey and seen tremendous reception to our offerings as a company.
What is the relationship between IoT, AI and blockchain, and how they together can bring transformation to traditional industry?
As stated earlier, we see IOT, AI, and Blockchain as three interlocking pieces. Take the analogy of a man. AI is the thinking part of the brain; Blockchain is the memory; IOT is the central nervous system and the limbs. One without the other renders a weak solution. So AI needs IOT in order to collect good, solid data for Machine Learning and making the right inferences. Similarly, Blockchain while immutable and tamper proof at some level is garbage-in-garbage-out if you do not store good, pristine data. That’s where clean data acquisition methods coupled with secure transmission ensure that the information on blockchain is reliable. In terms of these technologies being able to transform industries, when used in concert with one another, they have the potential to improve efficiency and utilization, reduce waste and fraud, lower costs in many industry verticals.
What are the key components to look for when choosing loT, AI and Distributed Ledgers provider?
First is the product-market fit. Let’s take the example of Ethereum vs Stellar. For Retail, if I am waiting at the checkout like and Ethereum takes 20 mins and Stellar takes 5 seconds, then obviously Stellar is the ledger for that application. However, if I wished to represent assets in the form of tokens, ERC-721 is an excellent choice. The same way, some AI products can provide real time insights on limited amount of data, while others can crunch massive volumes of data to provide more holistic insights. Second, product capabilities, feature sets and cost. In IoT, there are several platforms but the Reference IOT Architecture has 7 layers and some products are suited for connectivity management whereas others, like the NetObjex platform, are more adept at Application development.
What are the main implication for the current trend of IoT?
We are very quickly headed towards a world of autonomous and semi-autonomous devices. Cars, drones and many more daily functions will be dealt with using robots in different shapes and forms and sizes. These devices will act as assistants to humans e.g. in various surgical procedures, there are robots assisting doctors. In some other cases, the robots will replace humans, and humans will move on to higher value add endeavors.
How do you see the trend and development of loT, AI and distributed Ledgers in the future?
With semi-autonomous and autonomous devices abound, there is a need for data marketplaces for them to transact with one another. For instance, the sprinkler system that waters your lawn, will in the future, go purchase data sold by a weather instrument to gather the forecast for the next two days and leverage a soil humidity sensor to decide using an AI algorithm as to how much to water in a given session. These data marketplaces will crop up everywhere and there devices will have their own wallets and act on their own volition. In this scenario, the data marketplace would run one or more blockchains and use cryptocurrency for payment due to its efficiency. The current smart contracts of many ledgers do not leverage AI but I see that changing in that these smart contracts cannot remain that simplistic and will learn and operate in a more dynamic manner.
Are there any legal concerns in this area?
There are legal concerns whenever machines make decisions. Who is liable – the company operating the machinery or the company which engineering the product? There will be many such issues that will surface in the next few years. For instance, if an airliner goes down, was it pilot error or poor maintenance by the airline or the fault of the aircraft manufacturer?
What is your plan in 2019 and further beyond?
In Geoffrey Moore’s classic book – Crossing the Chasm there is a famous diagram:
The Innovators and Early Adopters were doing POCs with our platform in 2017 and 2018. We have 9 OEMs in 4 continents across 5 vertical segments. In 2019 and beyond, we believe this group will start to scale their projects into production ready systems. In 2019-20, we see the Early Majority beginning to do POCs leveraging our platform for Digital Transformation initiatives involving IoT-AI-Blockchain. And by 2021 and beyond this group will begin to scale. So, given this strategic foresight, we are positioning our business for the best possible outcome.
What will be the relationship between people and machine in the future, and how does loT and Ai affect the role of human in this regard?
There are many studies that show many jobs will be replaced by IOT and AI in the future. This is nothing new. In the last Internet boom, jobs such as travel agents and stock brokers took a major hit as automation disintermediated their jobs. Similarly, cab drivers and truck drivers may become obsolete in the future, police departments and the military may employ robots in dangerous situations so as to not endanger human lives, certain medical procedures will be 100% handled by robots, and so on. The good news is this will also lead to newer types of jobs for humans e.g. Drone pilots, or Robot Construction Operator, or Human-Robot Linguistics Expert. The one issue is humans need to retool themselves for the jobs of the future to avoid being left behind. The digital divide between those who embrace technology and those who are unable to will expand. That will have social-economic ramifications as the first group will join the ranks of the affluent and the others may not.