By Larry Buzecky
AEM Vice President
Business Intelligence & Strategy

In the 2015 sci-fi sleeper hit “Ex Machina” (92% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes!), a brilliant (and unpleasant) inventor develops a robot capable of achieving self-awareness. The results are ultimately tragic for the humans unfortunate enough to interact with it.

Even as programmers and scientists race toward ever more nuanced levels of machine learning, some of us grow increasingly anxious about the potential results. It wasn’t long ago that Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking were agitating for a ban on the development of artificially intelligent weapons.

However, applications of artificial intelligence, or AI, are industry agnostic. Equipment that operates without human intervention is already well-established in smart mining operations such as those in the Pilbara region of Australia and in Bingham Canyon Mine near Salt Lake City, Utah.

As technological advances continue to sprint forward in terms of materials, self-learning algorithms, data mining, “big data” applications and so on, equipment manufacturers will be called upon again and again to revisit their budget line item for research and development.

During dinner at a board meeting this year, I sat across the table from a sector board member and discussed how these kinds of technological advances are impacting decisions he’s making for his company. Given the extensive technical background of this individual, I expected to have a fairly animated conversation around the opportunities these advances represent.

Instead, I was informed that his business was primarily interested in the practical applications of proven technologies. Of course I was disappointed not to have the exchange I was hoping for, but I could hardly fault him for keeping his business focused on realities.

And yet there is an emerging reality. If your focus is not soft enough to see peripheral technology moving toward center stage, then what you really have are blind spots.

In this way digital camera technology sent Kodak packing. Netflix nixed Blockbuster. Amazon crushed the likes of Borders and Circuit City. Uber upended taxi service. Airbnb blew up the hotel industry. And machine intelligence will completely and fundamentally alter the manufacturing floor.

This is already happening as developers find ways to automate any and all repetitive processes, revolutionize “fuzzy logic” coding to improve the ability of machines to make “judgement calls” and help businesses reap the revenue-enhancing efficiencies that arise from this new approach.

How close is this future? If machine self-awareness or consciousness is being hailed as a milestone, perhaps we’re already there. From a July 2015 article on the Collective Evolution website:

The ability for something to be able to recognize that it is an individual, separate and with its own consciousness, is one of the classic signs of self-awareness. Researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute AI and Reasoning Lab in New York have adapted the classic inductive reasoning puzzle known as The King’s Wise Men and posed the problem to a trio of robots. One of them passed their little test.

Yes, I think some anxiety is justified. Let’s talk about the risks – when mavericks like Musk and geniuses like Hawking speak, we should probably pay attention. But let’s also pay attention to the opportunity.