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'Rise Of The Machines': Should CIOs Tune In?

CNBC's documentary, airing Wednesday night, explores our increasingly tech-dependent, interconnected world. Does it offer any insight for CIOs?
In the Connected Vehicle segment, it's refreshing to hear about something other than Google's wonder cars. There's some nasty footage of people driving badly, a reminder that autonomous cars will likely reduce the number of accidents. Inevitably, though, autonomous cars will have glitches that cause wrecks, injuries and deaths.

Of course, we don't need to deal with that problem yet -- this is the one segment of the show that profiles a technology you can't buy today. Lee tells us such cars could be on the road in a decade, but that's tech speak for 'we have no clue, really, when this will happen.' (In fact, there are autonomous vehicles in commercial operation now; Lee could have gone to Codelco, the Chilean state mining company, which is using autonomous vehicles in some of its copper mines.)

Lee also visits Rio de Janeiro, which she bills as "possibly the world's smartest city." In the wake of terrible floods in 2010, Rio put in a sensor-driven warning system that includes 600 cameras and a NASA-like operations center. Since its installation, the city's ambulances have improved response times by 30%. We meet a resident of one of the city's favelas, or slums, who responded to warning sirens just before a wall in his residence collapsed, avoiding a calamity that could have been fatal. Lee reminds us that all this technology did not prevent riots in Rio earlier this year. But it's hard not to agree that under ordinary circumstances, technology helps cities run better.

Lee then takes us to the plains of Nebraska, where she talks with Union Pacific about how it's using sensors to help prevent train derailments (of which there were 1,300 in the U.S. alone last year).

The documentary ends with expert observers weighing in on the implications -- both delightful and dire -- of our expanding use of technology. It seems feasible that we are on our way to 50 billion connected devices by 2020.

Should a CIO watch "Rise of the Machines"? Ask yourself this question: Will it inspire new ideas for the business? Can we afford them?

On one practical front, we are never told the cost of these projects in terms of time, people and technology. The hospital treating premature babies worked with an academic analytics specialist and a supercomputer. Rio de Janeiro got special attention from IBM. Union Pacific is almost certainly a test site for GE's Internet of things (though this is never mentioned). Most CIOs and their companies would pay dearly for such support.

If you haven't been looking at what is going on with sensors and software, the show offers a good primer. It may even spawn new ideas; I found myself wondering, for example, when we might expect to see self-driving lawn mowers. The internal combustion engine found its way into all sorts of objects -- so will connected sensors.

If for no other reason, CIOs might want to watch just in case the CEO and CMO have tuned in.