When Automation Fuses with Machine Learning, What Should We Call It?

What do we call the fusion of automation and machine learning?

We are witnessing the marriage of automation and machine learning. Automation is becoming more intelligent, thanks to machine learning. Boston Dynamics, for example, used to code its dog-like, ANYmal robots by hand but recently switched to machine learning and saw a 25 percent jump in the running speed of these machines. Going the other direction, Google, Microsoft, and others are now accelerating machine learning by automating the training of its algorithms. With AutoML, they are putting machine learning into the hands of a whole new range of companies and industries.

We’re still at an early stage in the integration of these core technologies. So for now, automation that incorporates machine learning is just really effective automation. And machine learning that is automated is just really efficient machine learning. But going forward, I think we are going to see more and more systems that transcend these individual categories of technology. We will see factory robotics that are integrally linked to machine learning systems for inventory management, equipment yield management, maintenance, and so on. We’ll see automated storefront kiosks at McDonald’s run by powerful machine learning systems. I mean, who am I kidding — we’re already seeing this.


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The question I am now pondering is what is the best way to talk about this fusion of machine learning and automation. Some experts in this field use the term “Intelligent Autonomous Systems.” It’s a mouthful. Also, I’m not wild about “autonomous” because it suggests a kind of free will or volition that just isn’t the reality right now.

While musing over this question yesterday, I toyed with calling these systems “transformers.” Why? Well, because automation and machine learning both transform things—machine learning transforms data into models and automation transforms models into action. I even ran the idea by people on Reddit, where one kind soul wisely counseled me against neologisms (especially those that remind people of giant Japanese robots).

So, I’m left scratching my head. When we talk about these increasingly hybrid systems, what should we call them? One approach is to just be literal with something like “intelligent automated systems.” Simple is good, I suppose, even if it sounds a little dry.

I’m genuinely asking for some guidance here.

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