The rise of the smart machines: Here comes the robo-workforce

In Searchlight, smart machines are all over the news and eyeballing human jobs. Plus: Apple gets social, a lot of passwords get stolen, and more.

In case they're listening, let's make one thing clear. Robots are awwwesome! Really, it's hard to deny the coolness of building a machine that replicates our species and to not admire the creativity and ingenuity involved.  When they're buzzing overhead, packing up and shipping your goods, and eyeballing you suspiciously at the mall, however, will you feel as "aw shucks, neato" about the rise of the smart machines? Maybe not. Especially if you used to be a delivery man, warehouse worker or security guard.

In this week's top Searchlight item, The New York Times writer John Markoff breaks the news on Google's plans to get into the robot biz. With Android software creator Andy Rubin at the helm, these babies are being built for business. This, of course, is the same week Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos took the eve of the biggest online shopping day of the year to notify the world of his plan for delivery drones (something Google and UPS reportedly are looking into as well). Also rolling onto the scene -- the K5 Autonomous Data Machine, a little R2D2-esque "night watchman" that can carry out its Orwellian security tasks for less-than-minimum wage. It sure sounds cool, but what does it really mean for us puny humans?

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled this week debating the logistics of how Amazon's proposed drone fleet would work in the real world and the potential effects on everything from air traffic to public safety and birds. But there's not as much talk about the potential effects on the world of human work. Maybe we all know the inevitable is already here. What could be better for corporations than outsourcing to workers you completely control and who never get sick or need vacations?

Check out SearchCIO's own coverage of these topics

Seriously, CIOs, this stuff is germane. At this year's Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, the rise of smart machines was put forth as one of the top trends for the coming years. Analysts predict that by 2020, most knowledge workers' career paths will be disrupted by smart machines. They suggest there are things CIOs should be doing right now in order to prepare.

To wit: Understand how smart machines operate and how they can deliver competitive advantage. A company that, say, gets involved in robot-assisted delivery opens a whole new world of data collection and analysis. You'll also have to understand the ways smart machines reach beyond the business and touch the IT organization itself. It's a brave new world out there, CIOs.

  • It's all fun and games until robots take over the world. Haven't you people seen I, Robot?
  • A reported $200 million purchase of Tweet-tracking Topsy Labs: Here are some educated guesses as to why socially indifferent Apple is suddenly getting all sentiment-al.
  • Hackers steal two million passwords from Yahoo, Facebook, Google and other popular sites and post them online! I'm not trying to blame the victim, "Mr. 123456," but at least make them earn it.
  • And then there are the threats no one sees coming -- like air gap-jumping malware transmitted via laptop mics and speakers.
  • In the best use of gamification in recent memory, Cropland Capture recruits players to help map the world's crops. Think of it like Farmville, except it has meaning and you're not wasting your time and annoying your friends.
  • Sure, it could be the lingua franca of the future, but teaching everyone to code may have some unexpected detrimental effects on society as a whole. (Though most folks in this article's unusually respectful comments section disagree.)

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, senior features writer.

This was first published in December 2013

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As the smart machines take over, will you welcome our new computer overlords?

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