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Advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology have the potential to disrupt the rules of the game for every industry.

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US Navy Robot Fighter Jet Completes First Phase Of Testing

This article was first published on 24 December 2012.

“Completely autonomously” are the key words in this story.  While drones controlled by remote pilots have been increasingly common, the idea of a completely autonomous military aircraft is a mjaor development.

The significance of this story lies in the fact this it is yet another thing to cross off the list of things that “Only humans can do”.  Why does that matter?  It matters because the assumption that things can’t be done a particular way or could never be done by a machine is the very thing that catches companies and industry incumbents and leaves them stranded when the technological ground  shifts beneath them.  The irony is that the thing that makes technological shifts seem sudden is our tendency to hang on to old assumptions about what is and isn’t possible.  The idea that computers or machines will never be able to do the complex tasks that people can do is one of the most prevalent and dangerous of those assumptions.  I suspect that advances in artificial intelligence and robotics in the years ahead will result in the disruption of an enormous range of industries and that there will be cries that “we never saw it coming”.  The reality is that the warning signs are everywhere and this development, significant as it is, is just another along the way.


As a final point, it’s also worth noting that this development program is being driven by the U.S. military which has an excellent track record in recent years of setting goals that seem unreachable, focusing resources, making rapid breakthroughs and then allowing the technology to be used in non-military applications.  The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) work on self-driving automobiles (see Google’s self-driving car) and natural language processing (now manifested in Apple’s Siri) are great examples of this from the last few years.

The takeaways:

  • Test all your assumptions but be particularly wary of assumptions that “only humans can do X”
  • Keep an eye not just on what’s possible today but also on where organisations like DARPA are looking to take things (particularly their final objective)
  • Imagine where the vulnerabilities and opportunities for your industry or business might be if the capabilities being developed by organisations like DARPA are made available for non-military application in the next five to ten years

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