An inside look at the future of sensor tech and AI for good

"Innovator at Work" Brons Larson on where AI has been, where it's going and how it can help solve real-world problems.

Once upon a time, artificial intelligence seemed like a niche career path. But Brons Larson, AI strategy lead in the Office of the CTO at Dell Technologies, has known about the technology’s versatility for decades.

In fact, working in AI is a generalist’s dream, says Larson. “You can apply AI to healthcare, genetics, optical sensors or autonomous driving,” he says. “It’s a capability that is going to be everywhere—and, in fact, is everywhere already.”

Throughout his career, Larson has worked with organizations including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), helping develop technologies like radar sensors, genetic sensors and sensors that detect bacteria in air samples. He joined the Office of the CTO in 2018 to help Dell identify and trial potential use cases for AI.

“The CTO’s office looks to the future and identifies the North Stars to get ahead of the curve,” he explains. “I help guide the strategy for where AI is going, not just from a hardware perspective, but also an algorithmic perspective and an overall business perspective.”

Sensor technology with real-world impact

AI and immersive tech being used in healthcare

Today, AI is omnipresent—and business leaders know they need to get on board, even if they struggled to adopt it in its early forms. According to Dell’s Innovation Index, 57% of tech industry respondents fear their technology is not cutting-edge enough to keep pace with competitors, and only 27% of IT decision-makers said they’re providing all the necessary tech for individual needs and preferences.

But these stats may soon change, with AI and smart sensor technology developing rapidly in the wake of hardware design advancements. “AI’s capabilities are far better than they used to be because we have such strong processing at the edge now,” says Larson. “You’re going to see a shift toward lots of sensors that are operating autonomously out there in the world.”

Already, the technology is accessible to more organizations than it was five years ago. “The ability to actually buy pre-trained models and instantly launch them at the edge makes things so much easier,” says Larson. “I think there will be a flooding of the market with AI tools and sensors in the short term.”

When it comes to the leaps and bounds AI and sensor tech have already made, Dell has been involved in taking the technology from concept to real-world use cases. One initiative at Dell, for example, involved developing sensor technology for intelligent self-checkout at major retailers. The systems, which rely on cameras and sensors working in tandem, optically identify products being purchased and cross-reference them against barcodes to ensure customers are paying for the correct items.

Another sensor solution, which Larson worked on before his time at Dell, has had an impact far beyond buying groceries: AI-assisted bio-sensor technology capable of detecting bacteria, viruses and toxins in air samples. The sensors led to the first early detection and classification of SARS and H1N1 as new biological threats. Today, such sensors are deployed around the world in public spaces like subway stations, embassies and post offices.

Relatedly, one of Larson’s primary focus areas today is how AI can be used not only to propel technology forward but also for human progress and social good. “At Dell, we take an ‘ecosystem approach’ to AI,” he explains. “We’re working with legal,bio  ethics and privacy teams, as well as technologies and outside counsel… We want to put forth a policy that aligns with our goals and values.”

The cusp of a ‘revolutionary’ new era of AI

Rendering of neural nets, courtesy of iStock images

The bio-sensors Larson worked on with DARPA stand out in his mind not only because of their relevance today—people are all-too-well acquainted with the global implications of biothreats like viruses in 2023—but also due to the nature of their algorithms. “The [biosensor technology] is based on the next generation of AI, which can abstract things it’s never seen before,” he explains.

This idea of abstraction—the ability of an AI to identify something it’s never been explicitly trained to recognize—underpins what Larson believes to be the next frontier for AI/ML. In recent years, much of the focus on AI training has been on neural nets, which mimic the way the human brain is wired. But Larson believes a new paradigm that will enable AI to extrapolate beyond data and develop a more abstract way of “thinking” is on the horizon.

“This generation that’s coming is going to be really revolutionary,” he predicts. “The ultimate goal, of course, is sort of mimicking the human being. We’re nowhere near that yet, but it makes for a fascinating study of humanity, what we are and what it means to be sentient.”

The answers to those questions may still be evolving, but as far as Dell is concerned, the stage is already set for the next iteration of AI to flourish. “Dell makes it easier for others to realize their AI dreams,” Larson says. “Our hardware is out there; it’s ready to deploy. The sparks we lit are now torches being passed to others, who are now building out and executing against those strategies.”

Innovators at Work is a series on Perspectives profiling Dell team members who drive innovation by combining ideas and technology to create life-shaping impact. The series is inspired by Dell’s Innovation Index, which provides insight on what global decision makers are doing to create innovation resilience in turbulent times.