smart machines

What is a smart machine?

A smart machine is a device embedded with machine-to-machine and/or cognitive computing technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) or deep learning, all of which it uses to reason, solve problems, make decisions and even take action.

Smart machines include robots, self-driving cars and other cognitive computing systems designed to work through tasks without human intervention.

Smart machines are digital disruptors because of the positive and negative impact they have and will continue to have on society. In business, the competitive advantages these technologies provide are expected to bring higher profit margins and lead to more efficient manufacturing processes.

However, smart machines are also expected to displace workers as well as dramatically change the nature of work and other societal norms.

How smart machines work

Smart machines might seem revolutionary, like something out of science fiction, with capabilities on par with the iconic robots of space-age movies, such as C-3PO in Star Wars.

However, smart machines are the next step in a long history of incremental advancements in machines and computing. Smart machines first emerged during early mechanization and the first Industrial Revolution, when rudimentary machines automated tasks completed by humans, in the 18th century.

The advent of computers in the 20th century laid the modern groundwork for smart machines. Related technological advancements such as the internet, data storage systems and sensors let computer developers collect and analyze an unprecedented volume of data toward the turn of the century, further speeding the rise of smart machines.

Those capabilities led to business intelligence and advanced analytics, where computers run algorithms to analyze data to identify patterns. Analysts use those patterns to generate insights into past and current events as well as offer insights on what would happen and what could happen if certain future actions were taken.

This analytics capability led to ML and deep learning, where computers themselves learn from additional data sets. These smart machines use their new knowledge to adapt and adjust their output.

Smart machines draw heavily on other modern technological advancements such as neural networks, voice recognition and natural language processing.

Examples of smart machine technologies

Many smart machines can replace humans in completing a task. For example, robotic process automation in manufacturing facilities can and does replace human workers. But some smart machines work for humans, such as doctors that use the devices to diagnose diseases and recommend treatments.

One of the earliest examples of smart machines was Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer developed by IBM. It gained attention when it defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1996. Watson, another IBM invention, was praised for its game-playing prowess after winning the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011.

Now, IBM Watson is known for its work in the healthcare field, where it aids in drug discovery, social program management, patient care management and treatment option selection.

The future of smart machines

Researchers, analysts and technology leaders agree that smart machines can profoundly change how work is done and how value is created.

However, there is disagreement on how smart machines will affect our lives, jobs and society. Some leading thinkers, including theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, have voiced concerns about whether AI is a threat to humanity.

While not expressing the same potential for doom, others also worry about what smart machines mean for people, noting that they will displace many jobs. They believe societies, governments, industries and individuals will need to rethink various accepted standards, including the length of the average workweek to how value is distributed, as smart machines integrate further into society.

This was last updated in January 2024

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