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Are smart machines after your job?

This article was originally published on Technology.Info.
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"A futurist fantasy," said six out of ten CEOs, when asked if the emergence of smart devices and machines could eliminate millions of middle-class jobs over the next 15 years.

That survey was taken by Gartner, but analysts at the IT market research firm say they’ve got news for the poll's cynical respondents: the impact of smart machines, they say, will have "widespread and deep business impact" by 2020, only seven years away.

If they're right, the implications are huge for technology leaders. According to Gartner, CIOs and IT heads will need to "change their mission" in order to handle the proliferation of smart machines to perform an ever-wider range of tasks that would have previously been performed by human employees. And that could lead to increasing levels of unemployment, they warn, whether company bosses are ready or not.

So are the bosses that Gartner polled just kidding themselves? "Most business and thought leaders underestimate the potential of smart machines to take over millions of middle-class jobs in the coming decades," says Kenneth Brant, research director at Gartner.

"Job destruction will happen at a faster pace, with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market's ability to create valuable new ones,” he predicts.

The survey was conducted as part of the company's 'Maverick' programme of research, which the company claims is designed to "spark new, unconventional insights".

Machines, says Brant, are evolving from automating basic tasks to becoming advanced self-learning systems, "as capable as the human brain in many highly specialised professions." As a result, he predicts, the next wave of job losses will likely occur among a cast of characters he refers to as "highly valued specialists" during the next decade.

"The bottom lines is that many CEOs are missing what could quickly develop to be the most significant technology shift of this decade," says Brant. "In fact, even today, there is already a multi-faceted marketplace for engineering a 'digital workforce', backed by major players on both the supply and demand side."

This marketplace, he reckons, comprises of intelligent agents sitting on networks, virtual reality assistants, expert systems and embedded software to make traditional machines 'smart' in a very specialised way. Add to that picture a new generation of low-cost and easy-to-train robots and purpose-built automated machines and the outlook starts to look bad for the job prospects for humans.

The outlook could be pretty for CIOs, too, especially if they work at companies that have not begun to develop programmes and policies for this 'digital workforce' by 2015, according to Gartner’s research. These companies will find themselves increasingly unable to perform in the top quartile for productivity and operating profit margin in their industry by 2020. And, as a direct result, CIOs who fail to champion digital workforce initiatives (and get their executive colleagues excited by the prospect into the bargain) could see their careers cut short by 2023.

"It's worth remembering that IT cost is typically about four percent of annual revenue, whereas the labour costs that can be rationalised by smart machines are as high as 40 per cent of revenue in some knowledge and service industries," says Mr Brant.

"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."

The good news is that he doesn’t envision a state of mass unemployment at any time in the near future. But what is certain, he says, is that smart machines will have huge impact on employment patterns. Plus, he concludes, “We won’t need to develop a fully functioning artificial brain by 2020 for smart machines to have radically changed our business models, workforce, cost structure and competitiveness.”