Smart machines: Will they take your job?

Smart machines: Will they take your job?

Summary: Chief information officers need to plan for smart machines to replace workers and boost profit margins. You may not like the outcome.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech, CXO

ORLANDO — The so-called digital workforce — smart machines that take over tasks and work handled by humans — is likely to have wide ramifications and cause some serious technology, social and political disruption.

At the Gartner Symposium and ITXpo, analysts have been telling CXOs that they need to start laying the groundwork for the digital workforce. Smart machines — think IBM's Watson — that will replace human labor. These machines will learn, adapt and automate decision-making on many levels. Humans will train and program these machines and then hand over their paycheck.

The upshot is that this smart machine revolution is going to create some serious upside to the economy. Profit margins will improve, companies will be more nimble and manufacturing, which will be taken over by robots at some point, becomes more efficient.

But first, there are the growing pains. Smart machines will mean dislocation for workers. Gartner's advice to IT leaders goes like this:

  • Get ahead of the smart machine trend and start investigating. 

  • Determine the impact on IT pros. IT will take a direct hit. 

  • Respect the human disruption and ethical, moral and social issues.

Gartner analyst Kenneth Brant said by 2020 smart machines will absorb millions of jobs. CIOs that don't prep for a digital workforce will likely have short careers, said Brant. He added:

It's worth remembering that IT cost is typically about four percent of annual revenue, whereas the labor costs that can be rationalized by smart machines are as high as 40 percent of revenue in some knowledge and service industries.

smart machines

The impact from smart machines will be wide ranging:

  • There will be political and union fallout. 

  • Protests will ensue. 

  • Consumers will eye "built by humans" products.

  • Smart machines will create new jobs. 

  • Morality becomes an issue amid smart machine accidents and failures in the field.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this smart machine workforce is that high-skilled positions — like those in the tech industry — will be nuked. These are the positions many are pushing as the payoff to get kids coding and other tech meets education initiatives. To wit:

  • Specialists' jobs will disappear as machines take over. 

  • Medium skills jobs will be aided by machines in 2023, but replaced in 2030.

  • Low skilled positions are all automated over time. 

  • In the end, you have superhero workers lording over the machines.

We'll be looking at this issue going forward. For now, the opinion on the impact on smart machines will vacillate between optimism and pessimism. You're either wide-eyed about the smart machine revolution or ready to duck.

Topics: Emerging Tech, CXO

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  • Uh-huh, where did we hear this before...

    Okay, so machines (now 'smart' machines) are going to replace workers. And a consultant is saying this. Well haven't we heard this before in a lot of industries...

    And what really happened. A few machines did come in (like assembly robotics for example) but really it was a smokescreen to take higher cost labor from a developed country to a "developing" country - where it was cheaper. The "machines" in the end turned out to be cheaper labor.

    Every time machines were predicted to save human labor and cost jobs, they in the end created more. But what happened was it provided a perfect excuse to shift to cheaper labor. It is happening again.
    • Then explain the high unemployment

      and do take into account the fuzzy math used to make the unemployment index look smaller than it is.

      Have fun.
      • Some unemployment comes from refusal to work

        When I was younger if I lost my job I found another one. The first one wasn't the "one" I want but it paid the bills. The replacement job also wasn't the "one" I wanted but again it paid the bills. The thing was I was working and supporting myself. If I had a job and it didn't pay well enough to mees my needs I would get a second job and on occasion a third part time job. You can do it when you are young and to some extent into your 50's. I still see adds for work in businesses and have had job applications stuffed in fast food bags when I went through drive ups. Not the greatest jobs around but much better then what I started with. McDonalds pays $10/hour, has paid vacations and medical in some states. It is a starter job not a career but a few years back no starting job had benefits of any kind. Construction jobs pay well but have trouble getting people that will show up on time and put in a full days work. I am 62, my health is failing and I still get offers to do roofing jobs. There is work out there. You might have to relocate or work hours you don't care for with little or no benefits while you either build your skills or tough it out until you find a better job. My best friend was 58, got laid off, applied at over 1300 places in the next year with no responses so he got a cdl, spent 6 months on a starter trucking job then relocated to N.D and got a better job hauling pipe 5 days a week. Starter trucking jobs are long hours and low pay compared to the golden days of trucking but it paid his bills and got him the experience he needed to get a high paying job.
  • jwspicer

    this is already happening, just look at how 300 employees at craig list and some servers killed a 11 billion dollar newspaper industry. The facts are clear today we are in a job decline and nothing is gonna bring these back to the old days where most people worked. Miles well get used to the government handouts
    • only problem is the government is broke

      Like M. Thatcher said, "Socialism is great until you run out of other peoples money." We are well past that and still the current administration wants to borrow more money. Government handouts don't save you or help you they make you dependent and take away your option of voting for a better class of public servants. Paper news companies are failing because most people now get their news fixes online or off the television. Yes technology had a hand in it but it is no different then a dishwasher replacing an hour in front of your sink. Things will change and people will have to find new or different jobs but there is work out there. If you want to stop outsourcing jobs to other companies start buying locally made items. You will have to pay $20 for a cotton t-shirt instead of the $6.95 you currently do but the job scene will improve. Worst case you take government handouts and buy foreign. Something about stones and glass houses comes to mind when I think on that.
  • The first to fall...

    will be any position that takes a hit with Obamacare. Service positions, like order takers at fast food joints, will be completely automated as soon as the exemption expires. Elections have consequences!
    Tony Burzio
    • I for one will not be

      going to a restaurant with machines. Corporations will do this to save money and it's scary to think what that will do to an already fragile global economy. If every fast food restaurant went this route what would that do to unemployment rate? Would the new norm be 20-25%? Sure the rich will get richer, but the other 95% will suffer dearly. If we continue to move away from human interaction our interpersonal skills and civilization will implode. Elisium is just around the corner folks.
      • Sure the rich will get richer, but

        they may not. The thing is these things are going to pull the consumers out of the economy (of course they would not longer be consumers in said economy). They will not be finding jobs as more and more get replaced. And there are just so many things that could be replaced like this. Does it really help corporate profits if you continue to remove workers and replace them like this. Sure, unless everyone does this. Just think of those consequences. They are thinking of the dollar but not where it comes from or how it is produced. That involves workers who make money to be able to spend.

        As for civilization imploding that would be a very likely outcome and I would say almost inevitable.
      • So collapse is inevitable

        What's going to replace the broken system, and when? Do politicians really know? Or do they know?
        • Collapse

          From what I've gleaned, the politicians know. There's a reason neither party offers a real solution - there is none.

          To fix the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare would take more than all the money in the world.

          We can't even keep from digging the hole deeper.

          Based on IRS stats, our current income from all sources (business and personal) is around $10 trillion.

          To pay for government (all levels), interest (only) on our nearly $60 trillion debt (government, business, personal), and put aside enough to keep the unfunded liabilities from getting worse - just these three items - would take double our current income.

          It is not a question of if there will be a financial collapse (and most likely a collapse of the global supply chain), but when.

          As bad as the debt/liabilities are, what will start the ball rolling downhill is rising interest rates.

          Rising rates will drive bond values down and set off about $400 trillion in derivative bets on interest rates.

          The links that back up my data can be found at
    • Not so fast...

      Apparently, WalMart, Home Depot and some other companies that tried to transition to more part-time workers found that customer service took a hit - and that went to the bottom line. Shoppers are going where the shelves are stocked and you can get help when you need it. The warnings about the ACA taking away jobs may be premature.
    • Did Romneycare turn Massachusetts into a wasteland?

      Obamacare is by and large the same thing as Romneycare...

      Have fun looking it up. Took me 3 seconds to find...
      • Actually...

        There is a major difference, Obamacare requires everyone to buy insurance, which may not be appropriate for their needs. Romneycare didn't as far as I am aware.
  • Maybe for the first time since the 70's

    I'll actually GET what I ordered in the drive through!
    • No kidding

      I rarely go to McDonalds in my small town. It happens to be the only restaurant since the tornado. Well, they literally gave my youngest son the bottom bun only. Yes, nothing else at all. Not to mention it takes them for ever to fix anything. So, I just do without if that is the only option.
    • Yep, I think we've done this to ourselves

      LOL this reminds me of a Wendy's dinner rush experience I had. litterally NOTHING was right about our order at all:

      * My wife got an iced tea instead of a coke. I got a sprite instead of a lemonade
      * my wife's bacon cheese burger consisted of two bottom halves of bun and had no cheese--just a single sad slice of bacon.
      * I got chicken nuggets instead of the strips--though they came in the chicken strip box.
      * the fries were stone cold...and the wrong size.
      * I got the wrong salad dressing for my salad.

      I kind of felt sorry for them..they all looked no older than 16 and seemed to be completely disorganised. The one older looking person was apparently an immigrant--presumably the manager--and was quite flustered and did not speak english very well. He apologised--apparently as it was the long weekend he had a couple no-call/no-shows that evening and so he gave us a "fixed" order and allowed us to keep the messed up stuff if we wanted. But in the end it was far from "fast" and calling it "food" was being charitable.

      Menial jobs are "beneath" today's teenagers--we've taught them that they should be entitled. Their jobs must be fun and entertaining and pay a "living wage", never mind that the vast majority already live in a household that provides everything for them anyways. And so, the only people who will work the drive through willingly are immigrants who aren't given a fair shake anywhere else and might not know engllish well enough yet to do better, but are trying to make ends meet. The "home-grown" kids might grudgingly accept such a job, but they will do as little as possible.

      It is sad--we are creating a society of mildly sociopathic people who demand help but are unwilling to provide help, who want high quality and want it now but will not pay or work for it.

      Excuse me while I tell those young punks to get off my lawn... ;-)

      So, I think society has done its best here in the 1st world to make "smart machines" more desirable. Where I am good help has become just as difficult to find as the pre-crash boom 5-10 years ago, and even at the lowest point of the recession in an employers market (you'd think) service was not stellar. So, I for one would welcome our "smart machine" overlords, if that is the best service we can muster up.

      That said, no smart machine has the POTENTIAL of a real human to provide personal service, so should we pull up our collective socks I think smart machines will be relegated to "McService" and people will start to appreciate and pay a fair price for sproper personal service from real people.
      Mark Hayden
      • Wish I didn't agree

        Mark takes the Orwellian view of the future... and I find it difficult to counter that view.

        His McService remark reminds me of the scene in 1984 when the lead character goes into a booth and calls the counsellor, a computerized voice that parrots soothing platitudes to everything our hero shares. Now that's McService and every time I work through the "Press 1 for...", I can see it on the horizon.

        The danger we face, however, is not that this kind of McService happens, but that we wake up one day, no longer realize how terrible it is and don't demand better. We will then have become the sheep people like Woodrow Wilson thought us to be.
  • "Smart"?

    Until software giants like Microsoft can figure out how to prevent "unidentified network" problems on my Windows 7 laptop, I really am not too concerned about my job.
  • Machines aren't smart, but they do repitive tasks very well

    As others have said, this isn't new.

    The difference this time, however, is that technology (as Moore's law predicted) has advanced to the point that changes can take place much faster than society can adjust.
    I believe that we will see more and more repetitive jobs taken over by robotic machines, using more and more miniaturized technology. Innovative thought, creative design, personal service and jobs like these, however, will probably grow as people become used to and bored with the uniformity of robotic technology.

    The problem we face, if that is true, is that our educational system is not producing the raw material to take these jobs: graduates who can think, create, innovate, etc. The "mutlitple choice test and nobody fails" nature of our schools tends to produce (with exceptions or course) graduates who can't write a coherent paper or express themselves with decent grammar, let alone think through complex problems and apply innovative logic to their solution. And, of course, manners or service in the workplace are today viewed as superfluous.

    So one might say that we don't have a machine problem; we have a people problem and unless we begin educating students for the society we can already see coming, that problem will only grow until some form of Orwellian nightmare becomes real.
  • Still need analyst/programmers

    Over thirty years ago when I was an undergraduate, I was told that programmers were going to code their ways out of jobs.

    The problem is that most users don't really know what they want their computers to do, never mind how to do it. That leaves a lot of room for analysts who will still have to explain to the smart machine what the users really want. Explaining to a machine what users want it to do is called. . . wait for it . . . Programming.