Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Coming Age of Sentient Tools
When Tools Think, Socialize, and Are Aware


By Brian David Johnson
Futurist in Residence
Arizona State University - Center for Science and the Imagination
Frost & Sullivan

Sentient tools are the next stage of intelligent, aware, and social machines 
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.

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.

Sentient Tools: An Overview

Sentient tools represent the next stage of intelligent, aware, and social machines that are designed specifically to interact with people. To better understand this new classification of machines, it helps to first dissect the term’s meaning.

Sentience is defined as the ability to perceive the world 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 involves both the ability to sense the world around the tool and to process, make meaning, and communicate with that world. To effectively interact with its environment, however, the sentient tool must be socially aware of the people working with it. It must understand a person as an individual so that it can communicate effectively.

The definition of a tool is simple. People have been using tools for millions of years. A tool is anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose, typically a device held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function. The definition of tools has been expanded to include both physical and virtual tools, but one defining element is that they are used by an operator.

By this definition, a sentient tool is a tool that can think and is aware both of its surroundings and of the person that is using it. The tool is, therefore, socially aware: It understands its environment, can make sense of it, and can communicate appropriately with the person using it.

This is an essential component of the sentient tool concept. 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.

The 4 Components of a Sentient Tool:

  1. Situational Awareness: Sensing the outside world via local and networked sensors as well as through data and expertise sharing
  2. Intelligence: Processing, understanding, learning, making sense of the world
  3. Social Awareness: Understanding who it is working with
  4. Communication: The ability to communicate with the human (multimodal interactions, e.g., voice, visuals, audio, haptic)
Sentient tools may have specific abilities that are greater than human abilities (e.g., mathematical computation, physical strength), but they are not designed to replace human labor completely. They are ultimately just tools designed for a specific task to be completed in the company and under the control of humans.

The rise of sentient tools will be enabled by a variety of technologies including artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, Smart Cities, cloud intelligence, robotics, intelligent mobility, and autonomous vehicles.

Brian David Johnson is a Futurist in Residence at The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University where he engages in research, outreach and radical collaborations to reinvent our relationship with the future. He is also a Futurist and Fellow at Frost & Sullivan. Previously, Johnson was the Chief Futurist at Intel Corporation.

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