Interview

Scot Gardner: Cisco

10 March 2017

Don’t expect to see artificial intelligence marching your way in robotic form - it’s already here, arriving through ever more of your everyday tools. So how well will we use it?

“What is a robot? It’s artificial intelligence in a physical body. And a robot that looks like a person is a deception that at the very least will provoke a failure to match expectation,” says University of the West of England professor of robot ethics, Alan Winfield.

Thanks to sci-fi, we’re all alert to the oddness of androids. But what about machines and systems that look inanimate, yet possess unseen abilities we would normally associate with a thinking creature?

Whether it’s Alexa, your internet-enabled TV, or your Cisco conference call phone at work – these devices are now equipped to listen and learn, monitor, remember and respond. Are we ready?

The hive mind

“When Cisco staff walk into this meeting room, the presentation screen knows they are here. It’s all ready to display their presentation without any wires,” boasts the $49bn turnover California based company’s new UK and Ireland chief executive Scot Gardner.

An ultrasound signal from an app on a Cisco staff phone, laptop or handheld device allows the meeting room to recognise and access it, so that your colleagues don’t have to endure endless wire-wrestling before you can summon your presentation on screen. 

By 2030 there will be half a trillion devices connected to the net

“Smart”, connected devices mean we can relax and let the gadgets do the work. If you’re running a large organisation, the benefits are boundless.

“Anywhere you go within Cisco in the world, your phone works, your laptop works, your wifi works, your badge works. Everything is connected. And we can even track where our staff are.

“By 2030 there will be half a trillion devices connected to the net,” says Gardner. “Our greatest opportunity is not only connecting them but bringing order and security to the way you do that.  Because if you just connected things without thinking and securing them, that would be chaos.”

The greater good

Averting chaos is pretty high on local government’s brief. Traffic, transport, refuse and pollution all have the capacity to rage out of control. Innovate UK is trailblazing the use of technology to calm traffic and manage waste in Manchester CityVerve, a “smart” city project that uses connectivity, or the Internet of Things (IoT) to organise the workings of an urban hub.

Cisco, along with 21 partners, is hoping to create a commercial model for smart cities that can plug in anywhere around the globe. From pollution sensors to “talkative” bus systems, wearable healthcare and energy-efficient smart buildings, CityVerve is designed to demonstrate what connectivity can do.

Inside smart buildings, carbon dioxide, ventilation, heating, cooling, energy and water will all be measured

Taming traffic will be part of the project plan. Buses will become wifi hotspots and display “intelligent” digital signs – but perhaps more crucially will use sensor technology to avoid bunching and gapping in services and respond to demand.

Traffic pollution will be monitored outside the Citylabs building, while inside, carbon dioxide levels, ventilation, heating, cooling, energy and water will all be measured, capturing IoT data that can be used to manage the connected environment.

And those using health and social care from Central Manchester NHS Foundation Trust will have an extra incentive to follow their health regimen – wearable devices and sensors will be tracking their treatment.

Whatever the locals think, they will be able to share their views on the smart city with other residents through community social platforms.

No brainers

Taking inspiration for a quick win from CityVerve, a digitised transport monitoring and management collaboration between Cisco, Davra Networks and Swindon Borough Council is forecast to mitigate £300bn in knock-on costs from congestion in the region over the next 10 years.

Along with businesses and local governments, health services are undoubtedly one of Cisco’s most important target markets for connected tools and systems.

From the mundane to the transformative, connected devices can deliver real efficiencies in healthcare. Equipment monitoring allows hospitals not only to track where kit such as wheelchairs and defibrillators have got to, it can also make sure that supplies are ordered only when needed, and never too late.

Cisco is about changing everyday experience

Cisco’s cable-free, touchscreen videoconferencing and sharing technology is used by Nottingham University Hospital healthcare teams to talk to cystic fibrosis patients in isolation.

Gardner’s favourite application of connectivity is more humdrum. “Cisco is about changing everyday experience,” he enthuses. Due to launch any day, SWIFT is a commuter’s dream – super-fast wifi in trains.

“Even when I can get a connection, I wouldn’t buy anything using wifi as we know it on the train today,” he says. But SWIFT’s truly secure and reliable connection could transform commuting, he argues.

“If you can deliver quality, secure bandwidth, you change the experience of being on the train to a place where you can do business, be social, and make the space productive. And if you can do it on trains, you can do it in cars. Not when you’re driving obviously.”

SWIFT will help operators as well as passengers, allowing them to handle things like maintenance and security proactively, using video feeds.

Vigilant

Both the advantage and the challenge of the “smart” environment, of intertwining the physical world with the cyber, is security.

“Our systems can talk to any location - any room or door. When you’re leaving the office you can be seen. The feedback from staff is they feel very protected by that.” 

Most attacks happen from inside. Security isn’t just about trying to block the door

But the swathes of data captured where the physical and cyber work-world meet are as much at risk of cyber attack as Gardner’s online shopping on his commute.

“Most attacks happen from inside. If you go back ten years people wanted to build a wall around their systems. Today we realise that’s not an exceptionally effective approach. Security isn’t just about trying to block the door.”

While cyber attacks have grown ever more cunning, cyber security in the UK has not. “It’s ironic that the UK is probably leading in terms of the use of e-commerce, yet we’re one of the lowest ranked in terms of cyber structures and architectures within business today,” says Gardner.

Cisco, he says, can do two things: “We can enable the network to be a pervasive security layer that actually looks at what’s happening inside the walls, taking autonomous and automated actions.

“The second thing we can do is give visibility. We have Cisco Talos, which gives us global, real-time insight into what’s happening on the net. And we also have OpenDNS which can control and provide information around the bad guys, using the fingerprint they leave.

On the grid

Since the internet made doing business from your bedroom a reality, the opportunity for commercial creativity has spread as far as broadband will allow. “My favourite definition of digital is ‘The convergence of multiple innovations enabled by connectivity’. Connectivity and IoT represent the opportunity to do for business what GSM did for mobile.

We need high bandwidth, education and local government support

“The reason all our mobiles work in Europe is because we had some idea of how we were going to get things to talk to each other. That meant Europe led the world in mobile technology for years.” says Gardner. But the infrastructure has to be in place – and the skills.

“It’s easy to say and hard to do. We need high bandwidth, education and local government support.” Gardner agrees that technology is one of the enablers that can overcome geographical disadvantage, and argues that the UK should be ambitious, and recognise the need for balance between enablement of business, and the fact that service providers are commercial organisations.

“We publish our yearly survey on how much bandwidth different countries have, and the UK’s been coming up nicely over the past few years.” That’s been down to industry feeding back to government and good regulation, he says. “We see a strong focus within the Industrial Strategy on even greater levels, and I think the question we would push out is, what is the right level and ambition for us?”

Connecting ambition with success

“Skills are at the heart of it. Whether it’s cyber skills or network skills, we need both in the UK.”

Cisco works with the Computing for Schools initiative, and its Networking Academy offers training for adults and for ex-offenders “in skill sets that make them employable”.

Its IDEALondon centre, a collaboration with UCL at London’s Silicon Roundabout, hosts start-ups such as Hoxton Analytics.

Our sales teams are able to give start-ups some scale. It’s a nice quid pro quo

This tech start-up has devised a way to measure footfall – and to supply that footfall data along with all the demographics any marketer could want. By monitoring the shoes of visitors or passers-by with floor-level cameras, Hoxton Analytics extrapolates data on the age, gender and social background of the wearers, without compromising their right to anonymity.

“We not only work with Hoxton Analytics in the IDEALondon space, but our sales teams are able to give them some scale as well because it adds value to us and some of our solutions. It’s a nice quid pro quo,” says Gardner.

This example epitomises the ambition Gardner holds for the UK. “Digital is about monetising what you know as well as what you do. There is an opportunity around information, IoT and sensors, and security. All things the UK is very good at, right?”

Technology is no longer about finding a wire, Gardner says. Connectivity will soon be a given. “And if everybody has that, the world of business will be radically different to what it is today. More flexible, more agile - because ultimately all of business is based upon people collaborating.”

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