Feature Story

The coming age of sentient tools

coming age of sentient tools

No industry will be left unaffected after the rise of these intelligent tools.

This is a post by futurist Brian David Johnson

Significant advances in technology and shifts in economies and culture are bringing about a new age of intelligent tools that are aware, can make sense of their surroundings, and are socially cognizant of the people who are using them.

Sentient tools are the next step in the development of computational systems, Smart Cities and environments, autonomous systems, artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data and data mining, and an interconnected system in the Internet of Things (IoT). These tools are "what comes next" and emerge from a base of computational, sensing, and communications technologies that have been advancing over the last 50 years.

See also: Digital tools redefine learning 

The "awareness" of these sentient tools is not comparable to a human level of consciousness. They are not meant to mimic, mirror, or replace human interaction. These tools are designed for specific physical and virtual tasks that could be vastly complex but are not meant to replace humans. Conversely, they are meant to work alongside the human labor force. The rise of sentient tools will have a significant impact on the global work force and education, leaving practically no industry unaffected.

Sentience is defined as the ability to perceive the world that surrounds us and to derive feeling or meaning from those experiences. For a machine or tool, being able to derive meaning infers that the tool is capable of some level of perception, processing and thinking. In this case sentience is both the ability to sense the world around the tool but also to process, understand, make meaning and communicate with that world. To be able to effectively interact with that world the tool needs to be socially aware of the person it is working with. It must understand the person as an individual so that it can more effectively communicate. 

See also: Robots as service providers springing up in a variety of industries 

This is an essential component to the idea of Sentient Tools. The tool may have some autonomy for thought processing and movement but it is designed to accomplish a specific task and to work with humans. These tools can be both physical and virtual.

A Sentient Tool is made up of 4 specific parts:

  1. Situational Awareness:

    Sensing the outside world via local and networked sensors as well as data and expertise sharing


    Processing, understanding, learning, making sense of the world

    Social Awareness:

    Understanding who it is working with


    The ability to communicate with humans via multimodal interactions like voice, visuals, audio or haptics.

In a research paper for Frost and Sullivan I explained that these Sentient Tools may have specific abilities that are greater than human abilities (e.g. mathematical computation, physical strength, etc.) but in the beginning they will not designed to replace human labor completely. They will be simply tools that are designed for a specific task to be completed with humans.

However, these advances in technology will have a massive effect on the job market, creating enormous destabilization and job loss. Tech analyst and commentator Rob Enderle expanded on the effects in an article for CIO.com "Initially these tools aren't specifically designed to replace humans, but to supplement them. However, they will quickly evolve to replace people who perform similar functions. For instance, paralegals, research associates, clerks, junior accountants, analysts, relief drivers, warehouse workers, delivery people and a cross section of the remaining human assembly work."

3 possible futures

  1. No industry unaffected

    Like the PC revolution and the expansion of the Internet, the implications for Sentient Tools will affect nearly every industry. Travel/Mobility and transport, defense, manufacturing, medical, construction, agriculture, customer service, Smart Cities, finance as well as the entire information, communications and technology sectors.

    Employment Radically Changes

    The nature of human labor changes. Unlike the other technology revolutions which created technology jobs, age of Sentient Tools will create demand for not-technological skills as well along with technology based jobs. These tools will massively automate the middle-skill jobs and create significant demand for high-skill knowledge based jobs, thus creating a Knowledge GDP in the future.

    New Approach to Education Needed

    To take best advantage of these new tools the labor force will need to be trained to work with tools that think, using these tool abilities to highlight what humans are really good at. Learning will need to be activity based as opposed to content and exam driven.

The coming age of Sentient Tools looms on the horizon over a decade into our future.  This coming age will bring about tremendous opportunities and equally as massive threats and destabilization.  Recognizing that the confluence of these technologies is taking place is the first step.  Next individuals and organizations need to imagine both the future they want and the futures they want to avoid.  Simple steps and preparation taken today and have tremendous effect over the next ten years.  


The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and may not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement.

We welcome the re-use, republication, and distribution of "The Network" content. Please credit us with the following information: Used with the permission of http://thenetwork.cisco.com/.