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The rise of Sentient Tools and why they’re a big deal


via Flickr © gIadius (CC BY 2.0)

  • The sensors made dirt cheap by smartphones are finding other roles
  • Welcome to the age of the ‘Sentient tools’
  • But what about the workers?

We need to spend more time thinking about the economic and social implications of our ability to marry artificial intelligence (AI) with robotics and sensors… and start getting worried.  It’s not that the development won’t ‘work’ and bear fruit - it’s rather that it might work too welI and put many of us out of our jobs unless we know what’s coming and we force the ‘system’ to make adjustments. Probably massive adjustments.


I don’t think so. According to Frost & Sullivan's ‘Visionary Innovation Research’ analysts, the buzzword to watch out for is ‘Sentient tools’. These are the things that will give expression to all the recent “quantum technological leaps” in artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT),  cloud intelligence and, of course, robotics and intelligent mobility (autonomous cars etc). Put all those capabilities together and you end up with tools that are aware of and can learn from their surroundings and users, says Frost & Sullivan.

But why the ‘sudden’ concern. Haven’t we been expecting AI and robotics to eventually give us all a life of leisure for three or four decades now?  Well yes, we have. But observers say we’re currently experiencing a spurt, or a perfect storm, as innovation in robotics in particular is moving ahead quickly - partly because of cost effective sensors.

Another bunch of researchers, IDTechE, has also just released a report, Sensors for Robotics: Technologies Markets and Forecasts 2017-2027, which points out that it’s the sensors in robotics that are allowing the creation of robots that can “see” and “feel”, in a biomimetic way, like humans and are thus able to eventually undertake more complicated ‘sentient’ roles. It points out that the market for robotic vision and force sensing alone is expected to reach over $16.1 billion by 2027.

The key enablers of that robotic revolution can be found in software and hardware development which have seen advanced sensor platforms and processing algorithms created, along with intuitive, user friendly interfaces and price drops.

Henrik Christensen, the Executive Director of the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, points out that cheap cameras for cell phones can take a lot of the credit.  “Today you can buy a camera for a cell phone for $8 to $10 and we have enough computer power in our cell phones to be able to process it. The same thing is happening with laser ranging sensors. Ten years ago, a modest quality laser range sensor would be $10,000 or more. Now they’re $2,000.”

All this points to the imminent arrival of Frost & Sullivan’s sentient tools that can act as social machines, able to actually communicate and interact with their environment instead of simply being performers of rote tasks -  think of a super-intelligent Alexa. These sentient tools can then be applied to our remaining labour-intensive industries such as travel/mobility, transport, defense, manufacturing, medical, construction, agriculture, customer service, finance, information and communication, and smart cities.

At this point it’s wise not to get too carried away.  Nobody is suggesting that Sentient Tools are a match for human consciousness and will therefore replace human interaction - well not in the foreseeable future anyway. But they will have a real impact by progressively by taking on “heavy computing and physical tasks” (and relieving existing workers of the burden - and the wage packet).

“Economies that are not prepared for the age of sentient tools risk a spurt in unemployment rates in the short term and a wider economic gap in the long term. Unskilled labourers and corporate employees performing support roles that involve routine and repetitive tasks are most at risk of of being replaced by sentient tools-enabled automation,” says Frost & Sullivan Visionary Innovation Research Analyst, Yash Mukherjee.

The usual prescription: extra training and education to move people to high-level-skill jobs as the lower level jobs fall by the wayside, is advanced. But that surely can’t go on forever. Apart from anything else, in the end you won’t have enough high level workers with the buying power to soak up all the extra production enabled by the Sentient Machines. And apart from THAT , it’s a question of fairness. Who wants to participate in an economy that condemns a large proportion of its working population to un- or semi-employment because all the work is being done by their cyber replacements?

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