In its October 2013 list of ten strategic technology trends for next year, the American IT research and consultancy firm Gartner underlined the concept of smart machines by proclaiming that they herald the greatest revolution in the history of IT. This is quite some claim, but what does it mean?
We have yet to come up with a universally accepted definition of the smart machine concept, though many have tried. The idea of smart machines continues the debate that began with the Internet of Things, concerning how soon all entities will be linked to a network. Mere linking is nevertheless not enough, as entities will also derive intelligence from the connection in the form of computing power, storage space and advanced analytics. This means that the device itself will not need to be highly advanced or capable of autonomously analysing and reacting to changes in its operating environment. Cloud services provide storage capacity and the ability to analyse large volumes of data rapidly, so even devices made from cheaper components can become intelligent by exploiting the trend known as cloud robotics.
Various efforts have been made to categorise devices and systems falling under the heading of smart machines. They may be understood as virtual data systems (e.g. IBM Watson), autonomous robots for transporting objects and individuals (e.g. Google Self-Driving Car and various pilotless aircraft or drones), and various operatives (i.e. industrial, service and household robots). Networked hardware capable of interacting intelligently with the environment may also be classified under the smart machines heading. A device that merely collects data is not intelligent, even when networked, but it may become so if it responds to change either autonomously or through some additional cloud-based capacity.
So what does all this mean for practical purposes? The answer is huge changes, with job losses forecast in many sectors while entirely new employment opportunities emerge in nascent industries. The next decade will see demand for expertise focusing on cloud services and advanced analytics (big data), and obviously also on robotics and use of networked devices. With a serious shortage of experts in big data and cloud services already, it’s fairly obvious that lack of talent will become an acute problem and major obstacle to progress in this field, but there will also be huge opportunities. Estimates of the number of networked devices worldwide are of the order of tens of billions, with forecasts of market potential running to hundreds of billions if not trillions. Obviously there is some vagueness when speaking of such magnitudes, but the trend is clear. An opportunity comparable to the emergence of the Internet and mobile communications is now at hand to establish new and successful businesses, to create export products and services, and obviously to provide associated employment. This revolution also promises cost savings, productivity, effectiveness and efficiency in public administration.
Now is the time to act. Our educational policy decisions today will determine the availability of specialists in the 2020s. Financial and other support for new businesses in the sector will help them to grow and globalise. Clear and propitious legislation will also inspire investment, pilot projects and associated rapid innovation. We are creating the Finland of the future right now.