1. What is a smart machine?
It’s a cognitive, contextually aware computing system capable of making decisions without human intervention. Smart machines use machine learning and data catchments to perform work traditionally conducted by humans. They are supposed to boost efficiency and productivity, and are being pegged as a major component in building a sustainable future.
2. The range of possibility for sustainability applications of smart machines is endless …
But, like all burgeoning technologies, the limits of sustainability within this future are not yet clear. Much will be based on which smart technologies society adopts. What we do know is the smart tech revolution is the first industrial movement that holds sustainability at the forefront of its development, and that’s a good thing.
3. We don’t need to kill the forest to save a tree
Replacing manual services with smart tech is expected to significantly reduce energy consumption. But the energy required to develop, build, run and service smart technology products must be considered. This video about two men cutting grass demonstrates the redundancy of overcapitalising on technology and the dangers of manufacturing a dependancy on regressive technology.
“While I believe, in general, that we’ll save energy by incorporating these machines into our lives, we have to be mindful that they themselves consume energy”, says Marshall Cox, founder and CEO of Radiator Labs.
4. Will smart technology make us stupid?
The successful integration of smart technology will see the enhancement of creative thought. The workforce will need an increasing skill level as more and more mundane work is overtaken. There are concerns that through automation and algorithm technology, human development could be stunted and lulled into complacency. It’s important to be aware of this threat. That said, there were similar fears heading into the industrial revolution and we work harder now than ever.
Philip van Allen, interaction designer, educator and creative technologist says: “There’s a lot of potential here, smart doesn’t always mean super intelligent. If our systems can understand our context, and have access to a lot of relevant information, they can present us with interesting options.”
5. They took our jobs! What are the implications of smart machines in work?
Reducing the human workforce to subservient drones isn’t in anyone’s interest, but it’s unlikely that progress will spiral out of human control. The aspirational focus is for smart machines to enable us to be more productive and flexible. By using them we can make more efficient, sustainable use of our resources.
“From a workforce point of view, smarter machines make us more productive and this allows us to focus on value-added activities”, says Maria Hernandez from Cisco Systems.
6. Technology makes errors, but so do humans
Performance failure is raised as a frequent concern whenever smart tech is involved, especially when we are looking at self-driving vehicles and other sectors where human life could be directly affected by smart machines. There is an argument that the systems should be intelligent enough to work out areas of poor performance and correct themselves. But nothing is fail-proof and it would be naive to think smart tech will be. There will be bugs in the beginning, but hopefully the collateral eggs in this omelette are minimal.
In the best-case scenario, we’ll combine smart technology with the agility of human decision-making to make sustainable and safe decisions. For example, says Chris Bilton, director of research and technology at BT, “The machine provides you with real-time information and you have the choice as to what action to take. This makes you think actively about your behaviours”.
7. It’s coming. Evolve or move aside
Hate it or love it, be prepared for smart technology to become a much bigger part of your life. It offers unbounded potential to improve our lives and enhance sustainability from all angles – home, health, manufacturing, work, transport, energy and leisure. But we also need to address issues such as IT security, skills and labour market problems. At the forefront we need to ensure that smart machines are enabling devices and not controlling mechanisms.
“The intelligence needs to be implemented in a way that augments our creative thinking rather than replaces it, and we need to consider where those boundaries lie,” says Stephen Barker, head of energy and environmental care at Siemens.
In the end, human capital must always remain dominant. “One might say that our humanity is found in what lies between a 1 and a 0,” says Jeff Wilson, dean of Huston-Tillotson University and “professor dumpster”. “That ‘in between’ is not within a machine’s capability. To me that ‘in between’ space will be ours”.
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