Tech Translated: Cyberphysical systems

  • December 07, 2023

What are cyberphysical systems? They’re the technologies connecting the physical and digital worlds. “The term describes situations in which we find a fundamental intersection of computation, communications, and physical processes without suggesting any particular implementation or application,” says Peter Durojaiye, a partner with PwC Hungary who specializes in security and technology risk. Examples include robotics, industrial control systems (ICS), AI, data, the convergence of elements of the internet of things (IOT), and cloud and edge computing.

What business problems can they address?

Because enabling interaction between the physical and digital is core to the concept, any physical business process that can be measured or automated could become part of an integrated cyberphysical system. “There are two broad categories of technologies,” explains Durojaiye. “Traditional ones are based on ICS, used mostly in utilities, energy, mining, and manufacturing; and emerging cyberphysical technologies, which include IOT, robotics, digital twin interfaces, connected and autonomous transportation, and smart devices.”

How do they create value?

As with any set of technologies primarily focused on enabling automation, the core objective of cyberphysical systems is to improve efficiency and safety. Yet the real value comes from ongoing improvements in outcomes through enhanced understanding of how the whole system operates. For example, the Japanese construction company Komatsu created a cyberphysical system to help coordinate partners and suppliers across its wider business ecosystem, combining drone-based sensors with smart construction equipment to improve access to site-specific information. Time spent on projects was halved, and risk was reduced.

The possibilities are almost limitless, with the ultimate manifestation in the concept of “Society 5.0”—a system of systems in which multiple interconnected networks, technologies, organizations, people, and needs all converge through shared data and self-correcting automation to create a highly efficient, constantly self-improving, human-centric, tech-powered ecosystem on a vast scale.

There are risks, though. The biggest threat comes from the potential for cybersecurity breaches, which manifest in three ways due to the fundamental interconnections between physical and digital:

  •  Physical–cyber attacks, in which attacks in the physical world impact the digital, disrupting the system by attacking physical infrastructure
  • Cyber–physical attacks, such as ransomware shut-outs or denial-of-service attacks, which originate online but are designed to prevent physical systems from operating
  • Cyber–kinetic attacks, launched online to cause physical damage—not just inconvenience—to property and people

But even with such substantial threats, the potential of cyberphysical systems makes them a worthwhile area to explore—provided there is robust governance and risk management.

Who should be paying attention?

Almost everyone, everywhere, given the ubiquity of digital technology, but especially leaders in the role of the CIO, CTO, CISO, or COO; leaders of business functions including research and development and innovation; and leaders in the industries of energy, utilities, and resources; TMT; engineering and construction; industrial manufacturing; automotive; aerospace, defense, and security; hospitality and leisure; and consumer markets.

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