Smart machines are totally disrupting the way business works: here’s how

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Hal 9000

When you think about the future as promised by the sci-fi movies and cartoons of your youth, it’s easy to get complacent (we were, after all, promised hoverboards). When you take a step back though and look at what technology has done both to and for business over the past few years though, it’s possible to get a sense of how disruptive and, at times, destructive a force it has been.

While the technology life cycle of every company has progressively been getting shorter as time wears on, they’re about to get a lot shorter. The main culprit? Smart machines.

Smart machines, simply put, are devices equipped with sensors that allow them to assess their location, as well as what’s required of them at that particular point and adapt autonomously. As with any new technology, these machines can make the working conditions of people safer and more efficient but can also render them redundant.

According to tech research company Gartner, the potential of smart machines and their impact is vast. They can make people more effective, empowering them to do what would have once been considered impossible.

Just a few years ago for instance, the idea of ‘self-driving cars’ seemed very futuristic; today it is a reality and elements of those capabilities are already well established through automated features like collision avoidance, pedestrian detection and automatic braking. Fully autonomous trucks are already in commercial use on private property in limited numbers today, with perhaps the most successful examples being in the mining sector.

We’re just at the beginning of the autonomous driving movement though. Despite how new the concept seems to the general population, more and more governments are taking steps towards making autonomous cars legal to drive on the road and indeed, an increasing number of people are okay with not being in control of their car.

That’s just one popular example of smart machines in action though. Other examples of smart machines include intelligent personal assistants (demonstrated by IBM’s Watson), smart advisors and advanced global industrial control systems. In the business world, smart machines are set to go beyond simple automation to adaptive learning.

“Today, smart machines are usually the result of brute force automation,” says Steve Prentice, vice president and Gartner Fellow. “But the next generation will exploit a variety of techniques to not only learn, but adapt to their environment. They will be able to seek new information to deal with novel situations. The criteria for ‘smart’ will be continually rising in the coming years. “If anything, smart machines will strengthen the forces of consumerisation after the first surge of enterprise buying commences.”

This in turn means that businesses will have to work harder than ever to stay up to date in terms of the technology available to them, especially as smart machines move beyond the hype currently building up around them.

“Long-term expansion cycles influence all businesses, and your major competitor in 10 years — if you survive that long — probably does not exist today,” says Prentice.

According to Prentice, the impact of that short life cycle can be seen in the way a number of the world’s leading tech companies have had to change their business models.

“To compete in this environment business leaders must destroy and rebuild the very businesses they helped create,” says Prentice. “Nokia’s metamorphosis is an example of embracing the concept of destruction and reinvention, while the current business model still remains successful. The divestiture of IBM Personal Systems Group to Lenovo and subsequent changes of company’s focus is another example. Apple is another company which almost came to extinction several times over its life, and then dominated the next technology wave through significant changes to its operations.”

While reinvention is entirely necessary, Prentice cautions that the timing has to be absolutely right. Try to adapt and reinvent yourself too late and you could wind up signing your own death warrant a la BlackBerry.

“The idea to ‘quit while at the top’ or to regenerate, may seem counterintuitive, but may be the only winning strategy,” says Prentice. “It requires total commitment from the board of directors and other stakeholders, ongoing support from the workforce, but above all, the conviction in the correctness of the course of action being taken. The most challenging aspect is the need to destroy or walk away from what appears to be successful, but will rapidly turn into a crippling legacy which prevents regeneration.”

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