The convergence of convergence

When people hear the word “convergence,” they usually think of the harmonious blending of two or more technologies. A good example is the mobile phone, which has evolved to the point where it includes not only basic components such as a camera, audio/video recorder, calendar, and web browser, but also an assortment of apps that do everything from warning you of an impending weather event to measuring how many calories you’re burning to whether or not you might have sleep apnea.

At last count, Apple owns more than 200 patents for technologies contained in its iPhones. Yet technology convergence is just the tip of the iceberg. If you’re not already on board, you need to be gearing up for convergences of multiple trends in science, health, society, government, economics and finance, and many others.

For example, socioeconomic convergence includes digital wallets that use not only currency-denominated credit cards from traditional banks but also blockchain-enabled cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin. Chinese internet and technology conglomerate Tencent has been leading the way in this area for several years. With its WeChat platform you can gather some nearby friends, make a restaurant reservation, order from the menu ahead of time, catch a ride, and get seated with your food and drinks brought to your table immediately upon arrival. And you don’t have to wait for someone to bring you the check because everything’s paid for in advance.

Much more is on the way, and there’s serious money behind it. The U.S. National Science Foundation’s recently launched Convergence Accelerator Program, including its Open Knowledge Network (OKN), should be of particular interest to KMers of all stripes, from researchers to practitioners. OKN uses a simple ontology based on semantic triples (one concept linked to another via a particular type of association), with provenance and timestamps added. This is a huge step forward in maintaining the veracity and value of knowledge bases, the essence of “knowledge curation.”

Domains initially slated for convergence under this program include biomedicine, geoscience, finance, and smart manufacturing. You can learn more about where all of this is headed in the National Research Council paper “Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond,” available at www.nap.edu.

Systems integration versus disintegration

Systems integration aims to seamlessly stitch together many different components, whether for mulating a highly complex genetically based cancer treatment protocol, or designing, building, operating, and maintaining a large commercial jetliner. As we attempt more of these complex, large-scale integrations, we learn that nondeterministic properties and system behaviors can and often do emerge. Consider the recent case of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. On paper, everything pointed to a safe, efficient, air-worthy vehicle. Yet something went horribly wrong. The knowledge in the minds of the design engineers, which was also embodied in the maneuvering system software, was not fully integrated with the knowledge of the human pilots.

To make matters worse, a definite path to recovery was in place. But it wasn’t obvious to the pilots, who had only a few frantic moments to respond to the dreaded “stick shake” (a haptic interface used to indicate an impending stall) along with conflicting sensor data.

Airbus had a similar disaster in which a response to strong turbulence that worked in the simulator resulted in the tail fin being ripped from the aircraft, killing everyone on board. These incidents have made people even more mindful of possible similar disasters playing out on a smaller scale but in greater numbers in driverless cars, autonomous drones, etc.

The reality is that the more systems and subsystems we attempt to stitch together, especially when we extend the interfaces into the socio-economic, legal, political, and cultural realms, the greater the unpredictability. This is the dark side of convergence. Doctors only have so many cadavers to operate on. Airline pilots can only go through a limited number of hours of simulator training. Insurance companies can cover risks only up to a point while keeping premiums within reach.

But surprises on the upside can and do happen. Let’s take a look at how we KMers might help organizations plan for and achieve greater success through convergence by turning risks into opportunities and by inspiring breakthrough innovation.

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