Is the Workforce Ready for the Rise of Smart Machines?

Society and the human workforce may feel this machinery's impact before most decision-makers realize what's happening — for good or for ill.

by / June 27, 2014

The term "smart machine" defines a broad category of programming and machinery that learns and adapts to situations, and processes data at speeds that puts older gadgets to shame. It encompasses the wide array of robots, artificial intelligence, smart appliances and wearables, neuromorphic chips, and next-generation supercomputers that the tech media can't get enough of.

It also encompasses a computing category that can process data faster than people can, and can "think," more or less, at a level that's closer to human cognition than machines were previously capable of. Society and the human workforce may feel this machinery's impact before most decision-makers realize what's happening — for good or for ill.
Gartner predicted  in fall 2013 that smart machines will begin threatening jobs through 2020. Research director Kenneth Brant painted a grim scenario in a company press release. "Job destruction will happen at a faster pace, with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market's ability to create valuable new ones," he said.
But the bulk of Gartner's content wasn't quite as extreme. Researchers claimed that smart machines might become a threat as they proliferate, but it's too early to determine how soon that will happen or how severe it will become. Even so, workplace leaders should stay vigilant on the technology's development. Sixty percent of CEOs surveyed said that it's far-fetched to think that smart machines could threaten middle-class jobs — but Gartner warns against complacency.
"The bottom line is that many CEOs are missing what could quickly develop to be the most significant technology shift of this decade," Brant said.
Gartner's analysis applies nationally, but people also notice at the local level. The Desert News, a Salt Lake City newspaper, reported in March 2014 that tabletop menu-ordering computers in restaurants like Ziosk exemplify a potential problem for human servers. Customers order customized meals on the Ziosk tablet, and human servers are able to serve more tables because of it.
That sounds pretty good, but the Desert News implied that automation like this comes with a bad side. Machines like IBM's Watson computer, which is used to diagnose cancer, and other programs lawyers use to analyze hundreds of thousands of legal documents will displace many human employees who used to contribute to the process.
The 2013 British research report The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation claimed that 47 percent of American jobs are at risk because of sophisticated computing.
But there may be a roadblock ahead for smart machines' possible workforce dominance, according to Gartner's research. Smart machines in general are in the first iteration, so the "scarier," more productive machines are possibly quite far in the future, and the cost required for their mass production is impeded by weak global revenue and economical states. The need for existing human labor is still quite strong.
Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.