When Smart Things Rule the World

August 14, 2015
Contributor: Rob van der Meulen

Digital business is here. Autonomous business is next.

The age of digital business is around us, and every person, company and industry is increasingly affected by their use of technology. But where does this inexorable trend of increasing numbers of ever-smarter machines lead to?

Steve Prentice, research vice president and Gartner Fellow, has been researching what comes after digital business. To him, the next phase is autonomous business, where goal-seeking, self-learning artificial agents pursue the optimization of business outcomes on their own initiative.

In this situation, rather than directly operating technology as a user, humans will co-operate with self-taught artificial agents that can handle routine business (or personal) processes with far greater efficiency. This frees humans to spend their time on alternative projects.

“The likes of Airbnb and Uber are already introducing us to autonomous organizations,” Mr. Prentice said. “They simply broker information between a customer and a product or service which they do not own, produce or deliver themselves. This is just the beginning.”

While autonomous business will enrich our lives, it also raises concerns about the impact on human employment. As with all technologies there will be an impact as it replaces jobs in some areas, and creates new jobs in others. However, the elimination of all, or most, employees is not a plausible scenario for most organizations in the future.

“The dehumanized organization may be efficient, but it will fail to foster the emotional loyalty that characterizes the most successful organizations of our time,” Mr. Prentice said. “It’s likely that the role of humans will shift to less routine work that requires creativity and emotional intelligence, or involves complex motor skills that machines struggle to master.”

This is best illustrated in the following example:

The Smart Store Cupboard
Imagine a smart store cupboard: As items are removed, the cupboard recognizes the type and quantity and triggers a resupply order. Multiple store cupboards work together to bulk purchase from suppliers, get cheaper prices, and offer their customers supermarket shelf prices automatically delivered to their own home. They don’t even need to be there to receive the order. Your smart cupboard is always stocked with the things you have listed. It may even learn to anticipate demand based on the weather or other variables, or to negotiate with multiple suppliers and delivery companies to get you the best possible deal. The infographic below illustrates how it might work:

The Smart Store Cupboard

This same process today requires human actors. At the very least one person orders the items for the home, and another delivers them. It’s not difficult to see how the smart store cupboard and an autonomous delivery truck could remove all the human work from this task. While this is helpful for the person buying the goods – it’s one less chore for them – it’s not such good news for the delivery driver, who now needs a new job.

“We can extend this idea of automating routine processes to whole warehouses or supply chains and beyond, and in doing so will see a huge impact on society,” Mr. Prentice said. “Humans will be empowered like never before. Yet to stay relevant (and employed) they will increasingly have to focus on providing what machines cannot – for example creativity, empathy, or emotion.”

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