In this article, written for the NSW Smart Sensing Network’s The Sensor newsletter, Cicada’s Hebbat Manhy shares her thoughts on the evolving world of smart sensing.
In just a decade, smart sensing has pushed all limits to transform lives and reshape industries. As AI and sensing merge on digital platforms, we are ushered into an era of enhanced perception, prediction, and interaction with the world around us. and now weaving us into the universe's cosmic threads
Let’s begin with a look at the multifaceted and rapid evolution of smart sensing technology.
PART 1 - THE BREAKTHROUGH DECADE
IoT Sensors: Building the Connected World
We are all wired up! At the forefront of modern smart sensing are IoT sensors, the building blocks of the interconnected world we inhabit. These sensors grab data from the physical world and shoot it over to the cyber universe, enabling devices and systems to communicate and make informed decisions. Miniaturisation of components, improvements in wireless communication, and the availability of low-power microcontrollers enabled the ubiquitous application of IoT devices. The connected world is smart enough to know when the thermostat should chill, or when that machine on the factory floor needs to step up its game. IoT sensors have revolutionised various sectors.
Wearables: Bridging Humans and Data
Wearables aren't just cool fashion accessories anymore – they're like our sidekicks in the journey of life. These smart sensors, often embedded in devices worn close to the body, monitor vital signs, track physical activities, and even measure brainwave patterns. From fitness trackers motivating individuals to stay active to medical wearables alerting healthcare providers to anomalies in patients' conditions, wearables bridge the gap between humans and data, empowering both individuals and professionals with valuable insights.
Biosensors: Decoding Biological Realms
Biosensors offer a glimpse into the intricate world of biology, enabling the detection of specific biological molecules and compounds. These sensors have revolutionised medical diagnostics, environmental monitoring, and food safety. With advancements in microfabrication, nanotechnology, and biotechnology, biosensors are becoming more sophisticated and versatile. From glucose monitors empowering diabetics to manage their condition effectively to environmental sensors detecting pollutants in the air and water, biosensors contribute to a safer and healthier world. Biosensors are smart sensing first steps towards nature and tech merging.
Thinkables: The Mind-Reading Frontier
Mind Games, Anyone? The realm of smart sensing extends to the realm of "thinkables," which delve into the depths of our thoughts. These sensors are like direct lines to our brains, letting us communicate without moving a muscle. Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs), turn brainwaves into commands that external devices can use. Thinkables have far-reaching implications, from assisting individuals with limited mobility to offering insights into cognitive processes. Imagine controlling digital interfaces with your mind or even gaining a deeper understanding of your own mental states.
AI-Enabled Sensor Technologies
A defining characteristic of modern smart sensing is the integration of AI-enabled sensor technologies. AI algorithms process the massive influx of data from sensors, extracting meaningful patterns and insights. This fusion of AI and sensing has led to more accurate predictions, smarter decision-making, and improved automation across industries.
However, the journey from data collection to actionable insights is incomplete without digital platforms. Smart sensing is a system consisting of several components. Digital platforms provide the infrastructure for data storage, analysis, visualisation, and communication. From cloud-based solutions that enable seamless data sharing to edge computing platforms that process data in real-time, digital platforms form the backbone of the entire smart sensing ecosystem.
PART 2: BEYOND THE EDGE
We're on the edge of a new era in smart sensing; moving from a connected world to crafting a perceived one. One of these frontiers is the concept of "conscious" or "perceptive" sensors, which aims to imbue sensor technologies with a level of awareness and response similar to human and natural world sensing.
Multi-modal sensing capabilities (combining different types of sensors) combined with contextual information will amplify the ability to respond in real time to real situations. Sensing systems will need to access complex machine learning models that can mimic natural cognition and so continuous advancement in computational power, EdgeAI and Integrated AI will play a significant role in enhancing responsiveness.
Above all, bringing together experts in AI, materials science, electronics, and data science in a systems approach can lead to breakthroughs in sensor perception.
What does the next decade look like?
Quantum Sensors: Pioneering the Subatomic Era
Venturing into the cutting-edge realm of quantum physics, quantum sensors exhibit unprecedented sensitivity and precision. These sensors harness the peculiar behaviours of subatomic particles to measure magnetic fields, gravitational waves, and even changes in spacetime. It's like having superpowers that let us peek into the invisible forces all around us. Quantum sensors hold immense promise in fields such as navigation, mineral exploration, and fundamental scientific research, pushing the boundaries of what we thought possible.
Perceptive Sensors: Towards Sensor Consciousness
Perceptive sensors, also referred to as conscious sensors, aim to mimic the concept of perception found in living organisms. These sensors would not only collect data but also possess the ability to interpret, understand, and respond to the information in a manner that resembles human cognitive processes. This is a highly ambitious goal and is at a very nascent stage of development, but the potential applications are intriguing.
Emerging Perceptive Sensing Technologies:
- Neuromorphic Engineering: Neuromorphic engineering is a field that draws inspiration from the human brain's architecture to create hardware and algorithms that emulate biological neural networks. Imagine sensor systems that can actually process info like we do, leading to improved pattern recognition, learning, and adaptation.
- Biohybrid and Bioelectronic Systems: Researchers are exploring the integration of living cells or biological components with electronic devices. By leveraging the unique capabilities of biological systems, such as cells' ability to respond to stimuli, these biohybrid systems could potentially lead to sensors with more sophisticated sensing capabilities and even rudimentary forms of "perception."
- Synthetic Biology and Engineered Sensing: Advances in synthetic biology allow scientists to engineer living organisms with novel functions. By designing organisms with specific sensing capabilities, researchers are inching closer to creating sensors that can detect and respond to environmental cues in ways that could be interpreted as a form of perception.
- Advanced AI and Machine Learning: While not inherently a "sensing technology," the combination of advanced AI and machine learning algorithms with sensors can result in systems that seem more perceptive. These algorithms can extract complex patterns from sensor data, enabling systems to recognize and respond to events that might be associated with a sense of perception.
- Integrated Sensor Networks: As sensor technologies become more diverse and interconnected, the collaboration between various types of sensors could potentially lead to systems that simulate a form of perception. For instance, combining visual, auditory, and environmental sensors could provide a more holistic understanding of the surroundings. Like a squad of senses, working together to give us a fuller picture of what's happening around us.
It's important to note that while these emerging technologies show promise, creating sensors with a genuine sense of perception akin to human senses remains a significant challenge. The gap between mimicking the functions of biological organisms and achieving true consciousness in sensors is substantial and involves complex ethical, philosophical, and technological considerations.
The field of sensing technology continues to push the boundaries of what's possible. While perceptive sensors are a fascinating concept, they are currently in the realm of speculation and early-stage research. As our understanding of biology, materials science, AI, and other related fields advances, we may see new breakthroughs that bring us closer to creating sensor technologies with a higher level of perception and awareness.
In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, the realm of smart sensing has emerged as a fascinating intersection of innovation, data, and connectivity. The breadth of smart sensing continues to transform the way we perceive and interact with our environment.