Emerging Technologies

Let Us Take You into the Future

Artificial intelligence, autonomous databases, blockchain, chatbots, Internet of Things, and more: Oracle executives discuss emerging technologies.

By Michael Hickins

November/December 2017

Those of us who have been waiting for the future to arrive since, well, forever can finally rejoice. The future has arrived in the form of computer interfaces that feel human; self-learning software; self-healing autonomous databases; sensors that provide us with actionable, critical data from far afield; hyper-realistic visualization technology; and transaction systems that are simultaneously private and transparent.

What’s most surprising, though, is that the experience of the future is incredibly easy for Oracle’s customers to deploy. At this year’s Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco, California, Oracle leaders announced new products and discussed upcoming capabilities that put the power of several emerging technologies into the hands of Oracle customers.

Enterprise-Class Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the most fundamentally important and pervasive of emerging technologies. Larry Ellison, executive chairman and CTO at Oracle, calls machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence, “every bit as revolutionary as the internet.”

Oracle is using AI, for instance, to power its autonomous database and chatbots (more on those to follow), and to turn the trillions of data points streaming from connected devices into actionable information.

“For years and years and years, artificial intelligence did not live up to its promise,” Ellison said during his opening keynote address at Oracle OpenWorld on October 1, “but there is a new type of AI.”

This new type is tuned specifically for business purposes. It is intended to replace manually coded business rules with AI-based “learning algorithms,” noted Thomas Kurian, president of product development at Oracle, during his Oracle OpenWorld keynote. Kurian said Oracle is introducing both Oracle Artificial Intelligence Platform Cloud Service, an AI platform that lets customers build their own machine learning and AI algorithms, and domain-specific AI algorithms optimized for financial, HR, marketing, and other types of enterprise software.

For instance, Oracle Adaptive Intelligent Apps embed AI capabilities directly into Oracle Enterprise Resource Planning Cloud, Oracle Human Capital Management Cloud, Oracle Supply Chain Management Cloud, and Oracle Customer Experience Cloud. The apps can react, learn, and adapt in real time based on historical and dynamic customer data, helping organizations improve business processes and user experiences.

In addition, third-party data feeds into Oracle Adaptive Intelligent Apps from Oracle Data Cloud, which is the largest third-party data market­place in the world, collecting more than 5 billion global consumer and business names and more than 7.5 trillion data points monthly. Oracle customers can combine this third-party data with their own data, enabling them to make better real-time decisions about which offers to extend to customers.

Most important, Oracle Adaptive Intelligent Apps are designed to deliver immediate business outcomes based on real-world scenarios. This isn’t AI in the abstract. And because the AI technology is embedded in applications that business users already know, app usage doesn’t require extensive training—let alone the services of a data scientist, a business analyst, or some other technical specialist.

Business users can take advantage of the technology within their existing tools instead of having to export their data to an external AI application.

“AI has the power to be more transformative for the enterprise than any other technology in recent history,” said Amit Zavery, senior vice president of product development for Oracle Cloud Platform, during his Oracle OpenWorld session on October 4.

Zavery noted that because Oracle has embedded AI into its platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offerings, customers have access to common AI libraries, machine learning frameworks, and development tools they can use to build AI code into their own custom applications.

“There aren’t that many revolutionary new technologies, but this one is,” said Ellison in his keynote. “And you can recognize it simply by the charisma of the applications it enables.”

The “Self-Driving” Database

One of the most stunning applications of AI is Oracle’s forthcoming “self-driving” database.

Oracle Database 18c’s self-patching and self-tuning capabilities, powered by machine learning, are developed to minimize human intervention and virtually eliminate human error, helping reduce security risks while freeing database managers to focus on higher-level work.

We’re doing this to give you, our customers and developers, a canvas on which you can paint your vision and your ambitions and dreams, to use information technology in a new way—in a fundamentally new way—to transform your organization, your companies, and the world.”–Thomas Kurian, President, Product Development, Oracle

“This is a big deal, by the way. No one else does this,” Ellison said. “This is the most important thing we’ve done in a long, long time.”

Oracle Database 18c’s machine learning algorithms can automatically and continuously patch, tune, back up, and upgrade the system without manual intervention, all while the system is running. That construct minimizes the possibility for human error and malicious behavior.

Ellison noted that “the worst data thefts in history have occurred after a patch was available to prevent a theft. The patches just weren’t applied.” The self-patching capabilities of Oracle’s autonomous database turn that problem into an anachronism.

Oracle Database 18c also is developed to require no downtime window for provisioning, backup, patching, updating, and other maintenance. As such, Oracle service-level agreements will guarantee customers 99.995 percent availability, holding planned and unplanned downtime to an average of less than 2.5 minutes per month, or 30 minutes per year, Ellison said during his keynote.

“We have to automate our cyberdefenses. And you have to be able to defend yourself without having to take all your computer systems offline or shut down your databases,” he said.

Oracle initially plans to release two cloud versions of Oracle Database 18c. A version for data warehouse and analytics workloads, called Oracle Autonomous Data Warehouse Cloud, should deliver two times faster in-memory column store and about 100 times faster query processing and in-memory analytics for external data. An online transaction processing (OLTP) version, called Oracle Autonomous Database Cloud, is developed to provide four times faster in-memory OLTP access. “It’s [been] a four-year effort that is in beta test now,” said Juan Loaiza, senior vice president of systems technology at Oracle, during a Wednesday session.

Loaiza noted that Oracle Database has already included many of the automated features of the forthcoming self-driving database—but the autonomous database requires complete automation of all parts of the database lifecycle. “If you put together your own system and configure the database yourself, we can’t make it autonomous,” he said. “The cloud allows Oracle to automate the entire system from disks to database, enabling a fully autonomous database.”

If Oracle Database 18c customers choose to do so, they can hand over most generic tasks—such as configuring and tuning the database and provisioning backups and disaster recovery—to Oracle. Customers will still be able to pick specific maintenance windows so that routine maintenance doesn’t slow down performance at peak times, Loaiza said.

The autonomous database will secure itself, applying the latest security updates, including off-cycle patches for “high-impact security vulnerabilities,” he said. And the database will monitor itself using machine learning to avoid capacity limits and other bottlenecks.

Oracle plans to deliver all versions of its next-generation database in its public cloud as well as behind customers’ firewalls under its Oracle Cloud at Customer program.

Loaiza also emphasized that the autonomous database will not put database administrators out of work. While it will automate generic tasks, DBAs will still be required to do data modeling, data lifecycle management, and applications-related tuning.

Blockchain Is the New Facilitator

There’s a good reason blockchain is one of the most hyped technologies of the day. It promises to lower the costs associated with many types of transactions, while speeding their execution and making them more secure.

Blockchain is a data structure that enables multiple entities to share data on a shared ledger without a central authority. Each entity controls its assets using a private key and independently verifies all transactions. Transactions added to any block in the chain can be validated by multiple entities participating in that chain.

The way blockchain works, each participant in a given transaction or commercial relationship is represented by one or more nodes in a blockchain network. These nodes submit transactions on behalf of owners to the network. The blockchain network then validates and serializes the transactions and places the transactions into a block. Each block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, thus creating a chain of blocks. The information in a block can’t be changed without detection, because the hashes stored in subsequent blocks wouldn’t match.

“Blockchain can remove the need for intermediaries and replace it with cryptographically secure protocols,” said Mark Rakhmilevich, senior director of product management and strategy at Oracle, during an Oracle OpenWorld blockchain session.

AI has the power to be more transformative for the enterprise than any other technology in recent history.”–Amit Zavery, Senior Vice President, Oracle Cloud Platform Product Development, Oracle

Blockchain addresses the problem of trust between organizations by providing a mechanism that allows multiple parties to independently validate a transaction and then record those validations and transactions in the ledger. Because each entity has its own copy of the ledger, they can independently verify that a validation was performed and by whom. And because each participant has a copy of the ledger, there is no need for reconciliation of the transactions.

In Oracle Blockchain Cloud Service, developed on the open source Hyperledger Fabric project, the type of transaction specifies which entities need to validate the transaction, as well as how many validations are required to achieve consensus. The process typically requires only a subset of the organizations participating in the blockchain, but a sufficient number to satisfy the corroborations stipulated by the parties. This eliminates the need for every organization to ratify every transaction as is done in many other blockchain technologies.

Once a transaction has been validated, it is submitted to the ordering service that serializes the transactions and places them into a block linked to the previous block via a cryptographic hash. The transactions include not only what information was updated but also the signature of the submitter of the transaction and the signatures of all entities that validated the transaction.

Blockchain can manage common transactions, such as payment records, safety inspections, building permits, mortgage and loan records, purchase orders, and invoices. Members of a given supply chain can also use blockchain to manage their interactions with the various participants of the supply chain. For example, a food retailer can use it to check the provenance of its meats (and even see government inspection certificates). And the retailer, meat processor, and original seller can exchange fiduciary documents, validate shipments, and reconcile orders and invoices, all without needing a bank or other third party to validate these transactions.

Rakhmilevich noted that Oracle provides its cloud service as a managed PaaS, so that customers “don’t have to stand up new instances for every use case.” In this preassembled service, “all needed components have been provisioned,” he said.

Chatbots That Know More

Chatbots are another technology underpinned by Oracle’s AI technology. These seemingly human agents interact with people, both consumers and employees, like extremely knowledgeable staff members. In large part because they are animated by AI rather than strict business rules, they can understand context and learn from experience.

For example, chatbots built using Oracle Mobile Cloud Enterprise can infer earlier parts of a buyer-seller conversation, so that consumers don’t have to reiterate or contextualize their queries. Integrated APIs, such as a recommendation API, give chatbots access to customer purchase histories and preferences, improving a company’s chances of selling additional goods or services.

Another API can extract data from an image sent by a consumer; recognize that it’s an article of clothing; and recommend a similar, or even the exact same, article of clothing that’s in stock.

“We could have taken the approach that many other vendors have taken: ‘We’ll build an AI platform; now you figure out what to do with it,’” said Suhas Uliyar, vice president of mobile, bot, and AI strategy and product management at Oracle. “We took a different approach. We started with AI components that are chatbot-focused, but it doesn’t end there—that’s just a beginning that allows you now to expand into other utilities. If you want to use our NLU [natural language understanding] processing outside of chatbot, feel free to use it. It’s all built in a microservices architecture in the first place.”

The Internet of Things That Matter

The Internet of Things (IoT) is another much-hyped technology that has not delivered a lot of success thus far, Oracle’s Zavery noted. But that’s because most IoT projects are focused on technology rather than business outcomes, and “data is not connected to business insights,” he said.

Oracle’s approach is different. Oracle is embedding IoT and data analytics technology into business applications that manage specific workflows, such as those of Oracle Customer Experience Cloud (which includes sales, marketing, and customer service applications) and Oracle Supply Chain Management Cloud (which addresses issues in factory maintenance).

Oracle Internet of Things Cloud Service supports new development and is the platform behind Oracle Cloud–based IoT asset monitoring, production monitoring, connected workers, and fleet monitoring applications.

This all means “you don’t have to start from scratch” when it comes to connecting devices to your business applications, Zavery said.

In the case of the IoT capabilities embedded in Oracle Supply Chain Management Cloud, they let plant and operations managers remotely monitor production lines for potential outages and have them serviced before they go down. They also include support for augmented reality software that both plant managers and field technicians can use to review metadata about different assets, as well as real-time instructions on how to take those assets apart, execute fixes, and put the equipment back together. They can also “walk” the factory floor using virtual reality (more on that to follow).

Interfaces for Humans

The leap from green screen technology to more-graphical interfaces seemed like a revolution, but that was just a skirmish in the broader effort to make computing power available to all business users.

“Our vision for the human interface for applications is to become seamless for humans,” said Oracle’s Kurian. “No longer is it just web and mobile screens, but you could speak to the application. You can interact with it with messaging. You can take pictures and we can identify images, compare them with other things, and automate transactions.”

In the case of a plant manager “walking” a factory floor, virtual reality in Oracle Internet of Things Cloud Service can illustrate a digital twin of a malfunctioning piece of equipment and allow the manager to try different fixes without disrupting the physical device. Once the solution is found, the manager can direct a technician to apply the fix to the actual device.

That technician can also use augmented reality to superimpose metadata on the device needing repair, making it easier to apply the fix.

Blockchain can remove the need for intermediaries and replace it with cryptographically secure protocols.”–Mark Rakhmilevich, Senior Director, Product Management and Strategy, Oracle

“We’re doing this to give you, our customers and developers, a canvas on which you can paint your vision and your ambitions and dreams, to use information technology in a new way—in a fundamentally new way—to transform your organization, your companies, and the world,” Kurian said.

Easy Does It

The most remarkable thing about these remarkable technologies, however, isn’t that they represent singular advances that will help businesses improve cybersecurity and boost business efficiency and revenues. It’s that they’re remarkably easy to implement and use.

Migration tools make it easy for IT pros to move applications onto Oracle’s cloud infrastructure. Oracle’s platform services make it easy for developers to deploy a variety of open source and Oracle machine learning algorithms to build AI-enhanced applications. Oracle’s cloud applications are themselves easier for businesspeople to use and extract value from. This means that incorporating AI into existing Oracle Cloud applications; making chatbots part of the customer and employee experience; and taking advantage of IoT, machine learning, and blockchain capabilities to revolutionize your business is more than just aspirational. It’s possible—now.

[Follow Oracle Magazine in the coming months as it dives more deeply into these emerging technologies. —Ed.]

Next Steps

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Safe Harbor Disclaimer: The preceding is intended to outline our general product direction. It is intended for information purposes only, and may not be incorporated into any contract. It is not a commitment to deliver any material, code, or functionality, and should not be relied upon in making purchasing decisions. The development, release, and timing of any features or functionality described for Oracle’s products remains at the sole discretion of Oracle Corporation.

Illustration by Pedro Murteira