Once again the world at large is being subjected to a barrage of marketing hyperbole as the IT industry ramps up the clichés, acronyms and jargon specially designed to convince users to invest in the latest and greatest technology “yet conceived by mankind”.
We are told that all the latest trends – characterised by so-called “digitisation”, “big data”, “analytics”, “artificial intelligence”, “machine learning” and “deep learning” – are part of the “second industrial revolution” and that unless we embrace these trends we will forever be condemned to suffer unimaginably dire consequences of life in the “dark ages”.
Taking this threat to heart, my esteemed editor has decided that this month’s cover story should be devoted to a subject that to most of us as mere mortals is more commonly referred to as “science fiction”.
Under the heading “Towards a more intelligent world”, he asks the question: Will a robot be taking over your job any time soon?
He goes on to suggest that some experts predict that this is a distinct possibility in the near future; while others believe that robotics or intelligent systems will simply take over some of the more mundane tasks we perform, leaving us to be more creative and innovative.
He does, however, concede that whatever the ultimate scenario ends up as, there’s no doubt that intelligent systems are becoming more pervasive, at a rate that certainly wasn’t anticipated even three years ago.
The trouble is that a lot of what is being predicted for the future of IT in today’s world is, to an overwhelming degree, nothing more than speculative fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and their forecast impact on our social, business and environmental environment.
At this point it’s worth noting that popular reference works point out that science fiction’s great rise in popularity in the first half of the twentieth century was closely tied to the respect paid to science at that time, as well as the rapid pace of technological innovation and new inventions.
Based to a large extent on scientific and technological plausibility, science fiction as a genre in popular culture formally emerged where the social transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution first led writers and intellectuals to extrapolate and predict the future impact of technology.
By the beginning of the 20th century, an array of standard science fiction “sets” had developed around certain themes, among them space travel, robots, alien beings, and time travel.
The customary beliefs of science fiction included prophetic warnings, utopian aspirations, elaborate scenarios for entirely imaginary worlds, titanic disasters, strange voyages and political agitation of many extremist flavours, presented in the form of sermons, meditations, satires, allegories and parodies — exhibiting every conceivable attitude toward the process of techno-social change, from cynical despair to cosmic bliss.
One example of how predictions made less than a decade ago have been modified to take into account the realities of the situation rather than the extreme predictions for the future can be found in the current state of “business intelligence”.
Once predicted to be a function of fully automated systems with a high degree of self reasoning and based on artificial intelligence being applied to “big data” to produce some form of magical analysis to enable earth shattering and life-changing decisions to be taken by top executives in business, it is now widely accepted that without the intervention of “data scientists” business intelligence as it was once defined is virtually worthless.
Hence a new high-demand human skill has emerged in the workplace – someone capable of interpreting, translating and understanding whatever analysis is carried out in the process of examining big data.
This recent realisation in the IT sector that a human is needed to create and deliver worthwhile intelligence – on which strategic and tactical decisions can be based such as in business or in the art of war – is a fact fully understood and applied in the political and military intelligence spheres for centuries.
So, while technological advances may deliver on some of the science fiction-like predictions that are most commonly associated with IT’s “Second Industrial Revolution”, don’t expect all these changes to be that revolutionary that the human factor will be wiped out altogether.