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Gartner: Smart machines are coming

CIOs will need to assess how smart machines, capable of making decisions without human intervention, will impact business processes

Analyst Gartner has recommended CIOs maintain and promote an objective understanding of smart machines.

The growth of sensor-based data combined with advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence is enabling smart machines to make increasingly significant business decisions over which humans have decreasing control, according to Gartner.

“As smart machines become increasingly capable, they will be viable alternatives to human workers under certain circumstances, which will lead to significant repercussions for the business and CIOs,” said Stephen Prentice, vice-president and Gartner fellow. 

Prentice warned technology has eliminated millions of jobs over the course of history, but he added: “At the same time, entirely new industries have been developed by those technologies, almost always creating millions of jobs. Organisations must balance the necessity to exploit the significant advances being made in the capabilities of various smart machines with the perceived negative impact of resulting job losses.” 

With the increasing availability of low-cost computing devices, increased connectivity, sensor networks and the internet of things, there is existing technology capable of collecting data about the physical world without direct human intervention.

According to Gartner, this explosive growth of sensors, both physical and virtual, will provide smart machines with more “perception” and context of the physical world, enabling them to work more autonomously in support of business goals, leaving CIOs to highlight the risks and opportunities involved.

Since the dawn of robotics, Hollywood, science fiction writers and experts have warned of the dangers of artificial intelligence. In 2014, entrepreneur Elon Musk, in the closing session of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Aeronautics and Astronautics symposium in Boston, described artificial intelligence as “summoning the demon”, analogous to someone using a pentagram and holy water to attempt to control a demon.

But Prentice said: “In the confines of currently known technology, the idea of machines attaining some level of self-awareness, consciousness or sentience is the stuff of science fiction. Even with the coming generation of smart machines, which actively learn and will be able to adapt their actions to optimise their progress towards a goal, humans can choose to remain in control.”

In an article he wrote for Computer Weekly in 2013, Prentice warned as machines become smarter, society will need to address moral debates like the life and death decisions a driverless car could make in the event of an accident, and address who the responsibility would fall to if a machine made the wrong decision. 

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