Author Ian Khan doesn’t talk about his childhood in one of the most conflicted regions of the world as a challenge that he is successful in spite of – rather, he credits it as a formative experience that helped shape his career as a futurist.
Watching his TEDx talks, it’s evident that Khan has a knack for not only simplifying complex technological concepts for a wider audience, but also an ability to make a real emotional connection with his audience. An author of multiple books on business and technology, Khan also spends much of his time working with educational institutions and non-profit organizations across Canada to develop Canada’s innovation economy.
From a young age, Khan learned how to deal with constant change and a general uncertaintly about the future. Informed by his talents as an engineer and developer, he has something to teach us about digital transformation. We had an opportunity to speak with Khan ahead of his keynote at the Wavefront Summit in Toronto on May 2. Listen in on the Soundcloud embedded here, or read an abbreviated version of the interview below.
This is an edited transcript.
Brian Jackson: You were born in Kashmir and have a powerful story about your childhood, having grown up in a conflicted area. How do you go from being a child in an oppressed region like that to a futurist that speaks about the cloud and IoT today?
Ian Khan: It sends shivers down my spine every time someone talks about
it, it’s so personal for me. I think it’s all about life experiences and for me life experiences from my childhood shaped me in a way to speak out. One thing led to another and here I am in Canada talking about technology. The term futurist is interesting because you don’t know what the future holds. That was the case for me almost 30 years ago, I didn’t know what my future held. Everything was crumbling, everyone was running, it was the darkest times of my life. I think that from that, I learned that you have to hope for the future. For me, a futurist is somebody who can give insight into things to come, not someone that can just make wild predictions and be the next Nostradamus. It’s someone who can talk about the future and interpret it, talking about what will have an impact on people’s lives tomorrow or down the line.
BJ: Why do you think that cloud technology and the Internet of Things is so potentially impactful to businesses in the future?
IK: With both cloud and IoT, you could call them the new set of technologies that is driven by IT. Let’s talk about the Internet of Things. It’s going to be much more dramatic than the invention of the Internet itself. And that’ snot because of the vast scale, or how many sensors are going to be deployed. That’s just one aspect of the vastness of it. When you start thinking about the value it will bring to different situations, different people, or different needs that we have, then the conversation becomes very interesting. Some of the examples of IoT in play today are wearables or M2M sensors. But I think we’ve hardly scratched the surface. IoT today is at a place the Internet was in the mid-’80s. These connected sensors are going to change the state of things. If you’re talking about delivering healthcare in a remote region, is there a possibility your Internet of Things sensor will be able to do much more?
BJ: When was it that you first realized that the Internet of Things held that sort of promise? You’re painting a picture of extracting value and potential impact across industries. But was there some epiphany when you saw this was worth your attention?
IK: Absolutely. It was probably a decade ago, I came across research that was done on study logic and PROFIBUS. PROFIBUS was created by a German organization and those were the early days of communication to remote devices and was in an industrial context. It really struck me that we’re managing a multi-billion dollar petrochemical plant, or a refinery, with the technologies that now remotely send you an SMS if a sensor is down. So you were able to see stats from your devices out in the field and there were thousands of them. The pure scale of those devices sending back that information really struck me, that the magnitude effect of automation to technology is a high-value driver. I saw that as efficiency of running a plant and how resources were used. That was the moment I realized the potential of technology as an enabler and how a simple technology like PROFIBUS could really change things or shape things.
BJ: Can you point to some companies you see doing interesting things with IoT today?
IK: Tesla is a great example. They were just in the news because Elon Musk is going to create a new interface between the human mind and artificial intelligence. Going back to their IoT category, we see their cars are not really cars anymore. It’s a collection of devices that together are able to provide transportation capabilities. So it’s a computer that has a car around it. This has more impact when you talk about driverless cars and being able to access areas that you normally can’t access, or working in communities that has no transportation. I’m not talking about going to Mars, I’m talking about everyday living in countries and communities where automation of the transportation industry can have a tremendous impact.
BJ: It all sounds great, but do most companies have people with the right skill set today to derive value from all the information produced by IoT?
IK: I see a challenge for the industry on that. Finding the people who can do the work is the biggest challenge that anybody is facing within the IT industry. In traditional manufacturing processes or the way traditional business was done, it was encapsulated in a certain buck. Today, if you want to build something there’s a really integrated approach. You’ve got to be able to put together infrastructure around computing power, you’ve got to have a design lab, you’ve got to have a testing lab, and a prototype lab. There’s so many different elements. And if you have distributed teams, you’re looking to collaborate on the cloud, and because of that reason this has put a tremendous amount of stress on the general talent available within the industry.
BJ: One way I have seen vendors address that challenge for companies is with artificial intelligence. If you don’t have a data scientist on staff, there’s solutions that can sort your data for you and even direct what actions to take as a result. Do you think that these two fields of AI and IoT are tied together?
IK: They’re severely connected together. There’s a huge connection between the two, and you can’t deny the fact they’re both dependent on each other. Here’s an example I can talk about; Deloitte came out with a special report saying that AI is going to change the way the legal industry and the accounting industry work, because AI would automate the repetitive tasks that the lower level of staff are doing. The punching in the receipts, the crunching the numbers, and even taking away the role of paralegals to a huge extent. A lot of this is about data, and not just compiling it and creating reports, but intelligently putting it together so that their information is useful, it sits in the right bucks. We will automate a lot of that lower level work, but when it’s about analyzing that information that AI has put together, then it’s the role of the data scientists. I don’t think there’s a lot of us still available in the market, which is rightfully so. I see a lot of universities putting together courses, but it’s one of those things that takes time.