Long before David Mitchell founded XYZ Reality, he was entrenched in the construction industry — and developing an obsession.
Having worked in residential construction with his father on the west coast of Ireland, Mitchell was well-versed in the sector from a young age, and eventually became an experienced builder with commercial projects around Europe.
But in the background of a seasoned career, Mitchell became fixated on paperless construction, XYZ Reality’s mission critical director Waleed Zafar told DX Journal. He wanted to find ways for companies to skip the 2D drawing process altogether.
The UK-based software development company would go on to introduce Augmented Reality (AR) to the building sector in 2019 with the Atom headset, which has workers build from holograms.
It’s a wearable technology that allows for “connected workers” — on-site or remote employees who, according to Visual Capitalist’s Katie Jones, use digital technologies to assist them with day-to-day duties.
“We task our trades today to look at a 2D drawing, and conceptualise a 3D asset from that,” said Zafar. “And the most challenging part is to position that information out on site, within millimetre accuracy.”
If the process were streamlined, Zafar recalls Mitchell saying, “it will change the game forever.”
The award-winning headset allows construction companies to increase their accuracy, efficiencies, and workplace safety while decreasing margins for error and the likelihood of rework, Zafar said.
It’s just one example of how hands-on industries are being transformed by connected worker technologies — and a market for devices that is reportedly set to “explode” within the next 20 years.
Endless potential, game-changing solutions
The proliferation of smart devices transformed remote work and allowed employees to “remain fully connected” through technology, noted Visual Capitalist’s report.
In businesses like construction, engineering, or manufacturing, those remote workers can include operators, field workers, engineers, and executives who are connected to data in real time — and through technologies like platforms, interfaces, and wearable devices.
According to a 2021 article by Forbes contributor Sundeep Ravande, companies are using strategies to connect workers so they can “promote mobile collaboration between front-line workers and decision makers.”
The goal is to help workers get jobs done faster, better, more safely, and “let management and front-line workers use real-time operational data gathered digitally in the field to make informed, knowledge-based decisions,” he wrote.
As for which industries are expected to provide the bulk of the market for connected worker technologies, Visual Capitalist predicted that the top five will include oil and gas, chemical production, construction, mining and minerals, and airlines by 2039 — and there’s data to help explain the interest and demand.
Connected workers are reported to reduce operational spending by 8%, it said, while wearable devices are reported to increase productivity by 8.5%.
“With seemingly endless potential, these devices have the ability to provide game changing solutions to ongoing challenges across dozens of industries,” the report said.
Solving the golden triangle
Forbes contributor Alana Rudder and editor Kelly Main wrote in 2023 that the “golden triangle” of project management is defined by three constraints that must be in balance: cost, time, and quality.
These constraints also helped guide the challenges XYZ Reality looked to solve with its headset, Zafar said, and the first the team sought to address was quality.
To improve the accuracy of installations, they had to make sure the headset met construction tolerances in positioning the 3D model on site.
“We’re pleased to say we can position models with three-millimetre accuracy,” said Zafar.
In 2020, that accuracy would prove its worth when a presentation solved a real-world problem: the headset was demonstrated for a quality manager on a job site that was early in development, where concrete foundation pads had been poured.
But the headset displayed a hologram of cement that was perfectly overlaid, and the newly poured concrete was about 500 millimetres over the AR hologram.
“They’re like, ‘Wait a second. Have they done an overpour of concrete on that pad?’” Zafar recalled.
They had — and most critically, Zafar said the headset alerted the construction team to the overpour immediately. Without this, it likely wouldn’t have been discovered until later in the project’s development when steel was to be placed on top.
“It wouldn’t have fit, and that would have actually caused a three-week delay to the entirety of the project,” he said. “But because we caught it the moment the pour happened, it meant that they could actually fix it real time, without … a huge problem in terms of logistics.”
The example highlights the device’s ability to improve accuracy and, by eliminating the need for rework, improve efficiencies — and also, Zafar says, safety.
Safety, visibility, and ‘a lifeline to a real person’
About 30% of all construction activities are rework, which means a third of human capital — or “time” in the golden triangle — is allocated to fixing issues that wouldn’t exist if initially done properly, Zafar says.
Meanwhile, over three-quarters of health and safety issues are related to fixing rework problems.
“Building things right the first time … produces that product faster, more cheaply, and more importantly, the production process is safer,” Zafar said. “And that’s what we ultimately need as an industry.”
While some connected worker technologies indirectly make projects safer, others are being developed to directly enhance worker safety — and Blackline Safety’s Christine Gillies says that in some instances, they could mean the difference between life and death.
The company produces gas detectors, area monitors, and lone worker devices that can provide real-time visibility into the wellbeing of employees, according to chief product and marketing officer Gillies.
They also provide immediate situational awareness as incidents are progressing, which facilitates quicker reaction times in emergencies.
With connected safety technologies, Gillies said there’s approximately one minute and 40 seconds between the time a device detects a hydrogen sulphide emergency to the time a site evacuation is initiated — including sending help for a downed worker.
But without them, it takes up to two hours for someone to notice a worker is missing and initiate a search, and even longer to find them.
“An increase in connected workers means [they] will feel more confident and safety incidents will be addressed sooner, with fewer catastrophic outcomes and consequent labour disruptions,” Gillies said.
“Lone workers are [also] less isolated, with connected safety tech giving them a lifeline to a real person when working out of sight.”
How companies can implement connected technologies
When it comes to implementing connected technologies, Gillies said it’s key for companies to secure buy-in from workers on the need or rationale.
This could mean emphasising life-saving benefits, or immediately addressing employee concerns, like privacy.
As for tech like XYZ Reality’s headset, Zafar said companies need to walk before they can run, and step one is making sure to first have a decent model and schedule.
“Provided you have that … you’re good to run, basically,” he said.
“You’re good to be able to adopt these new technologies that can then kind of help bridge the gap, and connect the two data pieces together.”
And while neither Gillies nor Zafar had concerns about over-reliance on connected worker technologies, Forbes’ Sundeep Ravande cautioned that digital worker platforms generally function through wifi — so unstable connections are a potential issue to be mindful of.
“Unless the platform offers an offline mode that syncs once a connection is made, a connected worker platform will be of little use in such a situation,” he said.
DX Journal covers the impact of digital transformation (DX) initiatives worldwide across multiple industries.
The risks and rewards of big data and tech in agriculture
Farmers are turning to high-tech solutions in the face of climate change and rising costs, but are met by cybersecurity dilemmas — revealing the tightrope between tech resilience and potential pitfalls
The threats to global food security are immense. Climate change is wreaking havoc, costs are increasing on everything from equipment to fertilizer, war rages in the breadbasket of Ukraine and there are fewer farmers tilling the fields, to name a few.
Farming itself can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions or water contamination through fertilizers, and the way a field is managed can help sequester carbon for wildlife habitat, or emit that carbon and sterilize the landscape.
It’s all part of a complex balance of production, protection, cost and benefits that farmers must contend with, and which directly impacts global food supply and costs at the till.
In the face of these threats, farmers do what they have always done — adapt.
Farming has always been a sector of experimentation, change and technology — setting the stage for civilization as we know it if you go back far enough. But the pace of the changes and the challenges stacking up makes this moment in time different.
And like most things in our complex contemporary world, the potential solutions to some of these threats raise issues of their own. As farms and farmers embrace new digital tools, including AI, they must then grapple with questions of data ownership, cybersecurity and the impacts of corporate consolidation.
Getting it wrong can leave farmers in a more precarious spot, while getting it right can help them navigate a changing world and climate while reducing costs.
“I think there’s some potential, but just like other technologies, it’s not the technology itself that necessarily raises concerns, but it’s often who controls the technology,” said Kelly Bronson, Canada research chair in Science and Technology at the University of Ottawa, who studies the intersection of data and agriculture.
The complexity of farming
With the stereotype of farmers being stuck in the past, some assume farming isn’t overly complex. You grow the product, sell it, and wait for the next season.
The reality is much more complicated.
The interplay of weather, climate, soil, and pests along with the cost of equipment, fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide — not to mention international markets and the increasing use of agriculture for things like fibres and fuels — are just some of the reasons a contemporary North American farm is a significant enterprise.
It also means turning a profit could be challenging. One bad crop, too much fertilizer, or equipment failure can mean the difference between making it or losing out at a time when a modern combine can cost $1 million.
“We think, actually, it’s the constraints that are going to drive and continue to drive the adoption of technology and innovation to continue to try and push the risk down and to find margin where margins are otherwise tight,” says Wilson Acton, a managing partner at Tall Grass Ventures, which invests in agrifood technology companies.
Tall Grass’ portfolio includes companies that use machine learning and big data to manage fruit production, track the health and well being of livestock, and maintain real-time tracking and monitoring of grain quality as it’s collected.
Those investments are geared towards improving profits, but they also help mitigate contributions to climate change and better understand how to farm in a more unpredictable environment.
“How can we replace some of the things that we are using today to produce food, fuels and fibres with things that are more sustainable, natural or, you know, less polluting — with less risk associated with them?” says Acton.
Those solutions extend beyond traditional concepts of agriculture as a source of food.
One company in Tall Grass’ portfolio makes a bio epoxy resin from vegetable oils that can help make products like snowboards or sunglasses more sustainable.
Those sorts of tools and technologies can be invaluable for a farmer trying to make the best decisions about which crops to grow and market, not to mention where and when to plant them. It can help greenhouses find optimal conditions. It can reduce pollution and it can help drive a giant combine in a straight line — no small thing.
The end result should be more, produced for less, but all of that innovation relies on, and generates, a new critical resource: data.
Big data, machine learning and applications geared towards agriculture can have significant impacts, says University of Ottawa’s Bronson. More automation decreases labour needs and results in more efficient supply chains. It can also help reduce the use of gas and fertilizers through optimization, subsequently reducing the environmental footprint of a farm.
But she warns agriculture has a long history of power consolidation and work needs to be done to democratize data in the interest of food security and food sovereignty.
“I think we need to be really careful and notice that the same companies that historically have controlled agricultural technologies, are, and have been for about 15 years, really dominating in this new sort of digital era with these new technologies,” says Bronson.
In a recent article in The Conversation, she points to Bayer as one example, noting it has “the capability to access data from almost half of all farmers in North America.”
So while farmers struggled in the past with consolidated control of seeds, the transport of grain by the railways, or market control by powerful corporate interests, today they also have to contend with control of data and information.
“There are a bunch of ways that the companies can profit from these data, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Bronson.
“But there are some, maybe, misuses of farm data that can happen in the name of profit, for example, the sale of data to insurance or reinsurance companies.”
That sort of knowledge can be powerful.
Insurance companies can profit off loss that follows a predictive model, or chemical companies can look to those same models and set prices accordingly, she says.
Farmers can also benefit, but that knowledge will cost them while further increasing the bottom line of the companies collecting their data.
That value of the data also makes it an alluring target for nefarious political and criminal actors.
Anytime you link a device to the wider world, there is risk. When you’re talking about the global food system, and the needs of billions, the risk is more acute.
Writing this summer in Modern Farmer, Charles Eagan, the chief technology officer for Blackberry, says the threat of malicious forces taking control of farm infrastructure isn’t hypothetical.
“Hackers are jail-breaking tractors and they’re using ransomware to go after individual farms,” he wrote in August. “Earlier this month, a Quebec agricultural group, l’Union des producteurs agricoles, dealt with a ransomware attack that impacted its more than 40,000 members.”
Eagan says there are end points that can be exploited at all levels of the agricultural sector, from refrigeration units to combines, and throughout the global supply chain.
If enough of the new digital infrastructure for farming went down, it would pose an enormous threat.
“I spent a lot of time farming, before that stuff existed,” says Acton with Tall Grass Ventures, who grew up working the land in Saskatchewan without the help of GPS-guided combines.
“So you had to learn how to drive straight lines, which is actually a real skill that takes time to develop. If the satellite goes out, that’s not really a big deal. But you can see how that starts to compound.”
Those same combines often operate on licensed technology that’s owned by the manufacturer.
“That presents some risks to the, I would say, the food system at scale in terms of food security, because what if a nefarious actor were to hack all the John Deere tractors?” says Bronson.
“If we think about the food system in terms of bioweaponry, I think that’s a real security risk that we should be aware of, in this new digital era for farming.”
The future of food security
According to the Food Security Information Network, approximately 238 million people in 48 countries faced acute levels of food insecurity due largely to war, economic shocks and extreme weather in 2023.
But even in areas where a food crisis hasn’t taken hold, the challenges are immense. In Canada, abnormally dry or drought conditions are present across the country and the summer could be devastating for crops and livestock. Extreme drought conditions currently exist throughout much of southern Alberta and into Saskatchewan.
Beyond the farm, everyone has noticed the ever increasing cost of groceries as paycheques stagnate.
In addition to stresses felt across the globe, the age of farmers in Canada continues to rise, while the number of farms and farmers continues to decrease, according to the latest agricultural census.
All of these factors as a whole means agriculture will increasingly rely on technologies in order to maintain production and face down some daunting challenges — taking proven technologies from other sectors and applying them in fields and greenhouses.
Acton calls it a generational shift.
“There’s risk and we have to make sure that we’re building resilient technology around it,” he says, specifically referencing security. “But because there’s risk in it is, in our opinion, not a good enough reason to just not adopt.”
The benefits of doing so are plentiful, it’s just a question of for whom it’s plentiful for.
Tech’s gender gap persisted in 2023 — how has AI played a role and how might it be a solution?
A look at gender disparity in the tech workforce and how a Canadian AI software addresses it
Corporate and industry giants have noted gender disparity in tech for the past decade and beyond. Yet, despite all the diversity and inclusion initiatives, technological innovations, and women studying STEM subjects, not much has changed.
One Business Today India article highlights that while 43% of STEM graduates are women, women make up a mere 14% of engineers, scientists, and technologists. Plus, you’ll only find women in 7% of all executive leadership roles in tech.
This disparity extends lower down the hierarchy as well, with women making up only 13% of director positions and 17% of mid-level manager roles.
And if we look at women’s general participation in tech in all roles, representation was at 30% in 2013, and 36% in 2023, which is just a six-point percentage jump in ten years. And to add fuel to the fire, female tech workers in Canada are paid an average of $20,000 less per year than male counterparts in the same roles.
The dark side of AI seems to be playing a role in the disparity. Recently, Amazon introduced AI to their hiring process and since most of Amazon’s past recruits were male and white, the algorithm reflected that bias in its candidate recommendations.
Another factor stems from the culture. Diversity targets might place some women in executive leadership roles later in their careers, but career nurturing should start earlier when they first enter the workforce.
Still, not all hope is lost.
A closer eye on AI can reverse the damage, as Forbes points out in this article. Brands can use it to identify and reduce bias from:
- Marketing campaigns
- Recruitment materials
- Job advertisements and descriptions
- Resumes (blind hiring)
The gender disparity in tech plus limitations to AI inspired two Canadian women to found Toast, an AI talent software that’s dedicated to increasing female representation in tech companies.
The software’s algorithms are trained to assess diverse datasets without gender and racial bias. Co-founder Marissa McNeelands created those algorithms herself, backed with robust expertise from a master’s degree in AI.
While the platform offers practical fixes to gender bias like name removals off resumes, it’s more than just a software. Toast runs a membership club for women to connect with and support one another, share best practices, and find job opportunities.
Veronica Ott is a freelance writer and digital marketer with a specialization in finance and business. As a CPA with experience in the industry, she’s able to provide unique insight into various monetary, financial and economic topics. When Veronica isn’t writing, you can find her watching the latest films!
AI must consider human dignity, well-being, and jobs, says Stanford AI expert Dr. Fei-Fei Li
McKinsey talks about taking a human approach to AI with Dr. Fei-Fei Li in her book, The Worlds I See: Curiosity, Exploration, and Discovery at the Dawn of AI
AI takes technological innovation to new heights, from climate change initiatives to productivity in day-to-day work. Yet, these advances come with risks, and computer scientist and Stanford professor Dr. Fei-Fei Li says these can be mitigated by taking a human approach.
She chatted with McKinsey Global Publishing’s Mike Borruso about human considerations and company best practices from her new book, The Worlds I See: Curiosity, Exploration, and Discovery at the Dawn of AI.
Here are some highlights from the interview:
Tomorrow’s AI must prioritize “human dignity” and “well-being”
“We also recognize that the most important use of a tool as powerful as AI is to augment humanity, not to replace it. When we think about this technology, we need to put human dignity, human well-being — human jobs — in the center of consideration. That’s the second part of human-centered AI.“
“[Artificial] intelligence is nuanced; it is complex. We are all excited by a large language model and its power. But we should recognize human intelligence is very, very complex. It’s emotional, it’s compassionate, it’s intentional, it has its own blind spots, it’s social. When we develop tomorrow’s AI, we should be inspired by this level of nuance instead of only recognizing the narrowness of intelligence. That’s what I see as human-centered AI.”
AI’s “catastrophic risks” warrant guardrails
While noting that she isn’t coming from a place of “doom and gloom,” Li says the need for guardrails is urgent, as some of the risks are “catastrophic.”
“For example, disinformation’s impact on democracy, jobs and workforces, biases, privacy infringement, weaponization: these are all very urgent. A more urgent issue that many don’t see from a risk point of view — but I do — is the lack of public investment. We have an extreme imbalance of resources in the private sector versus the public sector. That is going to bring harm.”
“I think putting guardrails and governance around the powerful technology is necessary and inevitable. Some of this will come in the form of education. We need to educate the public, policymakers, and decision-makers about the power, the limitations, the hype, and the facts of this technology.”
Whether you’re working in health care, finance, insurance, agriculture, or any other industry, AI is making an impact. So what can your company take away from this interview for their own AI journey?
- Educate your employees on AI technology, economic impact, and ethics considerations.
- Hire for AI skills over credentials.
- Establish AI guardrails and norms that reflect local laws and your company values.
Read or listen to the whole interview here.
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