We now live in what Gartner calls an ‘algorithm driven’ world. Everything from ordering a taxi to finding a date involves complex algorithms. The world is shaped by algorithms which predict and execute against defined rules in order to automatically carry out every day processes.

On the surface this form of evolution seems beneficial. And in many ways it is. But as automation increases in all industries, and as the Internet of Things becomes the norm, are we inadvertently exposing ourselves to risks?

Automation is on the rise and there is no sign that it will slow. Devices have created a digital mesh, meaning that information is accessed more easily than ever before. The lines between work and play are now blurred, and certain elements of businesses must always stay switched on.

This is where machines step in to save the day. Technology and algorithms can take on routine tasks which relinquish staff from time-consuming and menial tasks, whilst maintaining the 24/7 culture of consumption.

Take Amazon for example, the figurehead of consumerism in today’s world. Understanding the importance of automation, Amazon put drones to work in their warehouses 24/7. Their army of machines delivers goods within Amazon’s colossal warehouses, a task which would otherwise be undertaken by workers - night and day.

Whilst such automation is a feat of innovation, what happens if the underlying algorithms are incorrect or unable to self-learn? Facebook felt the negative effects of this first hand with its ‘Year in Review’ feature.

The campaign displayed images from the past to remind you of memories. However, the algorithm which made this possible didn’t understand context, meaning that some users were presented with ex-partners, horror holidays or even deceased pets. Facebook had to reprogram the function when it released ‘On this Day’ so that it could delve deeper and analyze context before posting an image.

Facebook’s initial error should strike a chord with businesses. Automation is necessary, but companies must make smart decisions and monitor their algorithms to ensure that they can adapt to the changing context of both the user and machine. 

Facebook’s algorithms have leeway to make mistakes, but with healthcare there is no room for error. If a device monitoring the heart rate of a person suffering from coronary heart disease relays incorrect information, the consequences could be fatal. 

The very nature of automation means that errors are a real possibility as they allow a company to forget certain processes.

An effective analogy is to compare automation to a tap. Most individuals will turn on a tap and expect it to provide water, without thinking about it. Companies act in much the same way, expecting their machines to undertake what they have been programmed to do without the need to oversee them.

This mind-set could be dangerous. Whilst a human may understand that a context has changed, and flag this to management, a machine would not. A company cannot afford to let automation run away from them. Automation must be flexible enough to change as rapidly as the business. 

Additionally, machines connected through IoT present both an insider and external threat. Although we have entered an age where drones may be able to take the role of humans, we still cannot even give or restrict access for employees to certain parts of the business.

How will a company determine whether a machine is accessing only the parts of the network it has been granted permission to? Businesses will naturally monitor their own employees to prevent insider threats and must do so with machines as well.

Insider threats are one issue to consider, but what happens when a company’s machines are compromised by a cyber-criminal? If a CTO or CIO does not supervise their technology, a hacker could infiltrate a weak spot and have access to the network? Customer information or confidential data could be redirected through the automation process – and those in charge would be none the wiser.

Companies previously had to consider securing just their users, but now they must secure their machines too. A hospital now has a hundred things communicating with each other through Wi-Fi, so each and every communication has to be secured.

Ultimately, automation is a blessing for companies in order to free up resources and concentrate on issues that are aligned to strategic activity. Companies must be aware of the dangers and have a plan of action in hand to keep on top of these while also ensure that automation is secured against insider and outsider infiltration.

How can we benefit from automation and avoid falling victim to its dangers? Automation can’t be seen as a tap but rather an extension of the workforce that needs to be monitored and secured as such.

(About the author: Bob Janssen is founder and chief technology officer of RES.)

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