BY MONICA MEHTA
Automation has already transformed industries in which complexity and performance demands must meet the challenges of scarcer resources, narrower profit margins and expanding product volumes. Now the state of the art is beginning to move to autonomous technologies: driverless vehicles, self-tuning databases, adaptive robots and the like.
While automation involves programming a system to perform specific tasks, autonomous systems are programmed to perform automated tasks, accommodate for variation and self-correct or self-learn with little or no human intervention.
Which industries are ahead of the autonomous curve? These five industries stand out.
In the IT industry, the pioneering product is Oracle’s Autonomous Data Warehouse Cloud, a cloud-based database that configures, optimizes and patches itself with minimal human intervention. Oracle Executive Chairman and CTO Larry Ellison says the machine learning technology that underpins the company’s autonomous data warehouse, as well as autonomous integration, developer, mobile and other platform services that will follow, is “as revolutionary as the internet.”
Monica Kumar, vice president, Oracle Cloud Platform, explains why the company’s autonomous database will become so important across industries. “Data is doubling every two years and the way data is exploding presents both an opportunity and a challenge to organizations,” she says. “It could be a gold mine of information, and it could become hard to store, manage and effectively analyze large volumes and types of data in a timely manner.”
Database administrators now spend almost 75 percent of their time maintaining systems instead of focusing on higher-level work, Kumar says. As data becomes even more complex and fragmented, she says, Oracle Autonomous Database will “automate the administrative tasks so DBAs and IT can now focus on getting insights from the data, architecting the applications and data, building security best practices and supporting their business users better.”
The self-driving car is the most well-known autonomous machine, developed by early market leaders such as General Motors, Waymo, Ford and Volkswagen. Self-driving vehicles can navigate roadways as well as detect and respond to traffic signals, pedestrians, impediments and other vehicles, using a combination of techniques such as GPS, lasers and odometry.
A 2016 McKinsey report predicts that by 2030, as many as 15 percent of cars sold will be fully autonomous, up to 50 percent electrified and up to 10 percent shared (reducing sales of private-use vehicles). Those advances will lead to a new economy centered on mobility.
Toyota is heralding that shift with its e-Palette, a concept vehicle whose interchangeable interiors allow it to be used for a variety of purposes, including taxi, delivery van, store, office and hotel room. Toyota’s Mobility Services Platform gathers traffic, route-preference and safety data, as well as analyzing usage trends to determine demand for specific services. “We are not offering the vehicles to people just as a moving tool, but as a way of user-friendly mobility that will greatly increase people’s freedom,” says Keiji Yamamoto, Executive Vice President, Connected Company, and Managing Officer at Toyota.
The mobility economy will be about ecommerce, monetization and personalization—all of which need massive amounts of data storage, says Dave Schoonover, Oracle’s global director of automotive industry solutions. “Autonomous vehicles will end up generating hundreds of exabytes of data each year,” Schoonover says. “Companies need to consider where that data is going to go and how to extract value from it.”
Robots that perform repetitive tasks have been on manufacturing lines for decades. Today’s robots can accommodate for variations and change their behavior based on pre-defined algorithms.
Meanwhile, autonomous robots will transform supply chains, particularly ones with “lower-value, potentially dangerous or high-risk tasks,” as the technology becomes more accessible and reliable, according to a 2017 Deloitte report.
For example, robots with haptic sensors can grasp objects as fragile as eggshells and assemble products with multi-surface parts. Facial recognition software will let robots judge from a person’s face whether or not they’re doing a job correctly. “But that’s just brushing the surface of their autonomous capabilities,” says Mike Saslavsky, Oracle senior director, high tech.
Leading manufacturers are looking to invest in autonomous robots “to achieve end-to-end efficiency, productivity and risk reduction,” according to the Deloitte report. “When considering the level of automation to bring to your organization, it is important to define the optimal labor-to-automation mix to achieve desired benefits.”
While a robot won’t be checking you out at the drugstore anytime soon, autonomous systems already have a foothold in retail. At select Lowe’s stores, for example, “LoweBots” are helping customers find products and helping employees monitor inventory levels. Kroger, the biggest US supermarket chain, is testing “intelligent shelf” technology that digitally displays product and price information, simplifying a labor-intensive task.
Such systems are semi-autonomous, requiring a degree of human intervention, notes Michael Forhez, Oracle global managing director, consumer markets. People still have to set the price changes and program the shelves to change accordingly. But with machine learning algorithms Oracle is developing, “it’s not beyond reason that these systems could someday autonomously trigger price and promotion differentiation without any human interaction whatsoever,” Forhez says.
In the near future, he says, expect to see retail innovations that “anticipate our needs and deliver what we need before we even know we need it.”
Healthcare providers and their patients are seeing the benefits of semi-autonomous systems as well. For example, chatbots powered by artificial intelligence schedule appointments and provide relevant, easy-to-understand information about medical conditions. Sensors monitor patients remotely and electronically transmit collected information to health professionals.
“The latest digital innovations are creating opportunities for reshaping how healthcare organizations deliver patient services, improve outcomes, enhance clinician satisfaction and manage costs more effectively,” says Michael Walker, global lead of Oracle’s Healthcare & Life Sciences unit.
The Business of Disruption
Widespread adoption of autonomous systems is only now becoming possible because of recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI).“For a long time, people looked at the promise of AI, but it never quite delivered to its promise until very recently,” Ellison says. “With the advent of the latest generation of AI—neural networks combined with machine learning—we are doing things with computers that hitherto were considered unimaginable.”
For companies in the industries cited above, it’s now just a matter of when they will adopt AI and autonomous systems, not if. “If you are not in the business of disruption, you can bet someone’s got their sights on your business and that you will be disrupted,” Oracle’s Forhez says. “You’re going to have to sharpen your focus and do things quickly, because the breadth of experimentation in the field of autonomous technology is already breathtaking.”
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