Rise of the smart machines nothing to fear (for now): Austin

Social Media strategy, Analytics & Enablement, IBM

Smart Machines will deliver more benefit than harm to a CIO's career until at least 2020, Gartner hypothesizes, but CIOs should exercise care in how they introduce them into their organizations, said Gartner VP and Fellow Tom Austin.

"The era of smart machines is emerging now," said Austin in his session The Next Great Disruption: Smart Machines and their Technical, Business, Economic and Social Impact. The well-attended session outlined the criteria for "smart machine" designation, the types of work they will impact and what CIOs should be thinking and doing to get ready for them. 

What are "Smart Machines"?

Is your iPhone smart? What about Google's self-driving car? To qualify for Gartner's definition, a machine must meet specific criteria. First, it must do what people thought only people could do; second, it must surprise us be doing things that people thought were impossible. By that definition, your iPhone is not a smart device, but the Google self-driving car most certainly is.

Some smart machines - like the Google car - use "brute force" computation to perform their tasks, said Austin. Others use machine learning to adapt to changing situations, detect novelty and seek out data. Neither is "better" than the other - they're simply suited to different types of tasks.  

Austin divided smart machines into three categories: Movers, Doers and Sages. Each will excel at specific tasks:

  • Movers: autonomous robots from companies such as Kiva Systems (now owned by Amazon) or the "Big Dog" from Boston Dynamics move items from points A to B without human intervention. 
  • Doers: robots such as Baxter or PR2 that use sensors, cameras and machine learning to perform complex tasks like scheduling or handling and manipulating small objects.
  • Sages: Information-based helpers like Watson and Siri that rely on context and a familiarity with their users' environments and patterns to provide options and recommendations. 

What do they impact?

In keeping with the theme of the conference, smart machines will eventually impact every industry; however, it's not going to happen all at once, said Austin. Regulatory and legal issues remain inhibitors to wide-scale adoption; it will take time to build up a knowledge graph robust and complex enough for Sages to be helpful, especially at scale.

Still, the machines are here. Robots from Kiva Systems are already darting across warehouses worldwide; Watson's Clinical Oncology Advisor is now providing treatment recommendations based on a continuously updated store of medical research and patient data, in addition to other services. Looking ahead, Austin expects Sage-type information-based advisors taking off in 2015, with Doers for personal use coming into market in the 2015-2017 time frame. Autonomous vehicles won't be widely seen until roughly 2020. 

Equally significant, if also equally uncertain, will be smart machines' impact on people. "This is not a new feature or release. It's a whole new way of people and technology working together." On one side of the bell curve lies the biggest advance in human productivity in decades, leading to increased leisure time on a massive scale. On the other side lies mass unemployment and social unrest. The truth, said Austin, is most likely somewhere in the middle. Smart machines could conceivably:

  • replace people (for ex: forklift drivers)
  • assist people (for ex: carrying heavy equipment)
  • advise people (for ex: Watson)
  • observe and help people (for ex: the elderly or the infirm)
  • extend people (for ex: Google Glass)

What should you do about it?

Above all, Austin advised CIOs to explore smart machines now. "Laggards lose."

  • Get smart. This is not a spectator sport. The smart machine revolution calls for IT leadership, not just management.
  • Engage the business: Create a "smart machine" exploratory initiative to determine where best to start. 
  • Respect the impact on people: the impact of software and robots on peoples' work, career paths and employability will be profound.

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