Gartner on smart machines: “Futurist fantasy” or future job menace?

Gartner says impact of smart machines is real

One of the hot topics at this week's Gartner Symposium/ITExpo is the future impact of smart machines that exploit machine learning and deep-learning algorithms to let them behave autonomously and can adapt to their environment.

One of the hot buttons with such machines is that they "can enhance processes and decision making, but could also remove the need for humans in the process and decision effort. CIOs will see this as a means of delivering greater efficiency, but will have to balance between the active human workforce and the cold efficiency of machines that can learn," Gartner analysts said.

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Still 60% of CEOs believe that the emergence of smart machines capable of absorbing millions of middle-class jobs within 15 years is a "futurist fantasy," according to Gartner's 2013 CEO survey. However, Gartner predicts that smart machines will have widespread and deep business impact within only seven years through 2020.

Gartner believes that the capability and reliability of smart machines will dramatically increase through 2020 to the point where they will have a major impact on business and IT functions. The impact will be such that firms that have not begun to develop programs and policies for a "digital workforce" by 2015 will not perform in the top quartile for productivity and operating profit margin improvement in their industry by 2020. As a direct result, the careers of CIOs who do not begin to champion digital workforce initiatives with their peers in the C-suite by 2015 will be cut short by 2023.

"The bottom line is that many CEOs are missing what could quickly develop to be the most significant technology shift of this decade," said Kenneth Brant, research director at Gartner, in a statement.

There is already a multifaceted marketplace for engineering a 'digital workforce,' backed by major players on both the supply and demand side. This marketplace comprises intelligent agents, virtual reality assistants, expert systems and embedded software to make traditional machines 'smart' in a very specialized way, plus a new generation of low-cost and easy-to-train robots and purpose-built automated machines that could significantly devalue and/or displace millions of humans in the workforce, Brant continued.

"The supply side of the market - including IBM, GE, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon - is placing large bets on the success of smart machines, while the demand side includes high-profile first movers that will trigger an 'arms race' for acquiring and/or developing smart machines," Brant added.

While Gartner research asserts that smart machines will have widespread and deep impact through 2020, we also recognize there are significant impediments in the business, political, economic, social and technology spheres that must be overcome and these include

  • Early pilots will fail to produce desired results
  • The technology will not progress rapidly through the end of this decade
  • The price of technology will not reduce rapidly through the end of this decade
  • Labor unions will reorganize and successfully oppose the intrusion of "job-killing" smart machines
  • Citizens will protest higher and more prolonged states of unemployment, electing governments to legislate against smart machines
  • Consumers will reject the machines - either because of a highly publicized catastrophe or because of a more subtle and prolonged need for human interaction
  • People will provide even greater productivity increases than smart machine replacements.
  • Legal challenges, stemming from the explicit "programmed morality" in automatic smart machines involved in accidents, will derail the market for autonomous agents.

Some other interesting smart machine observations from the Gartner analysts include:

  • By 2024, at least 10 percent of activities potentially injurious to human life will require mandatory use of a non-overideable "smart system."
  • Economically priced cars with "automated assist" technology added as standard equipment will increase by through 2014 as an indicator of adoption.
  • The increasing deployment of "smart systems" capable of automatically responding to external events is increasing all the time, but there remains a deep-seated resistance to eliminating the option for human intervention.
  • By 2020, a majority of knowledge worker career paths will be disrupted by smart machines in both positive and negative ways. Near Term Flag: Virtual personal assistant usage in business grows more quickly in 2017 and 2018 than iPad usage did in 2010 and 2011.
  • Through 2020, the smart machine era will blossom with a proliferation of contextually aware, intelligent personal assistants, smart advisers (such as IBM Watson), advanced global industrial systems and public availability of early examples of autonomous vehicles. The smart machine era will be the most disruptive in the history of IT.
  • New systems that begin to fulfill some of the earliest visions for what information technologies might accomplish - doing what we thought only people could do and machines could not -are now finally emerging. Gartner expects individuals will invest in, control and use their own smart machines to become more successful. Enterprises will similarly invest in smart machines.
  • A number of forces are colluding to make this threat a reality, not least the fact that the technologies for building a large-scale and diverse scope of smart machines are coalescing and being tested by "first movers." At the same time ongoing weak revenue growth in the global economy will spur demand for cost reduction and productivity improvement by employing smart machines in place of humans.

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