Switching Roles

There is a silent switch of roles happening. One of these things that change people’s behaviour, businesses, and societies. For decades now we have used computers as tools. In the 90s people would learn how to use them, primarily for work. Over the years they got easier to use, and today, with laptops, smartphones and tablets, they are becoming ubiquitous. And then the switch happens. Instead of us, people, using computers, we are switching roles. Now the computer, or to be more precise, the software is using us. We are entering times when software tells us what to do. We are switching roles.

Computers emerged during the Second World War. They emerged in the US, UK and Germany. Of these, the US war machines like ENIAC and Univac became well known. IBM defined the computer industry for decades providing data processing machines like IBM 704 and the IBM 360 series. IBM also dominated the PC industry to begin with. In the 80s and 90s, computers were so difficult to use that they required expert knowledge. Workers were sent to seminars to learn how to operate them. And that was the term, people used computers. Furthermore, they used them for work. Now with the universal smartphone, the software is telling us what to do and when.

This change in roles is the core of the Digital Transformation that is silently taking place. It is the move from the analog way of doing things to digital way of doing things. To understand this, consider a fast food restaurant home delivery service. Few years ago this was a pretty complex coordination problem. A customer would call the restaurant and order. The person taking the order would enter the information into the ordering system. When the food was ready, a driver would be dispatched from the restaurant to deliver the food. If no driver was available the order would wait until a driver was back from delivery. Few places managed this well expect pizza restaurants.

Now, with digital real-time algorithms the cost of coordination has dropped to almost zero.  Ordering a meal from a restaurant is just few touches on a smartphone. The message is routed to the restaurant that will acknowledge the order and indicated cooking time. This will signal a driver that will sign up to pick the food up. Signals flow and everybody knows what is going on. Now it is the computer that is using the cook and the driver – it will tell them what to do and when. And all of this is real-time.

A restaurant order is easy to comprehend. But consider any business where coordination of effort and resources must take place. The same type of real-time algorithms can apply with lower cost of coordination. Consider a hospital that needs to have staff in particular place at some time. They can be allocated using real-time algorithms. Consider transportation where truck drivers are dispatched in real-time to pick up containers. Consider a software agent that sees a booking in your calendar taking place in another country and informs you of possible flights for you. Upon approval of a suggested trip, the agent will book the flight, a taxi and hotel according to your preferences. It will then inform you of your schedule. The night before, it will tell you to pack your bags and reminds you when the taxi will pick you up. On the other end, the hotel, airline and taxi service will all get the orders automatically in their software system.

With increasing application of AI, software systems will become our personal assistants as they will let us know what to do. Over time, they will get better, do more and we start to will trust them and then become totally depended on them. And when our software agents will start to talk to each other, life will become very interesting.