Reinventing Reality

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What might the digital and connected workplace of the future look like? Rohit Talwar, Steve Wells, Alexandra Whittington, April Koury and Helena Calle, Fast Future

How might AI, robotics, and connected devices change the workplace, hopefully for the better? Will tomorrow’s workplace be shaped by smart software, robots and intelligent devices, with few workers on display – or can we apply these technologies mindfully to create a more human experience? As futurists, we are constantly exploring the future of work and the workplace and the potential impact of new technologies. Here, we explore the next frontiers of the workplace, drawing ideas from our two most recent books: Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity and The Future Reinvented – Reimagining Life, Society, and Business. In particular, we explore how organisations might harness the potential of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and a growing range of other increasingly powerful technologies in service of humanity at work.

Across all Fast Future’s work on our books, articles and speeches we have focused on the core theme of how we can and should retain humanity in the face of disruptive technology. When we think about the future of the workplace, it’s clear that technology’s role is already becoming a present day issue, as highlighted by the various ways that robotic and connected devices have begun to disrupt day-to-day working life. So, what are some of the existing and soon-to-be possible ways that connected and robotic devices may impact the workplace from now to 2040?

Big Brother in the Workplace Today

Let’s start with some of the most potentially disturbing developments that are designed to monitor and enhance workplace productivity, but which also represent a massive potential invasion of our privacy.

Identity Badge on a Chip: The Swedish company Biohax implants a chip between the thumb and index finger of employees. With this implant, many tasks can be accomplished with a wave of the hand – such as access control to buildings, signing on to a computer and purchasing from a vending machine.

Algorithmic Managers: Workplace chat and productivity app Slack learns from the things that employees talk about and share to provide them with relevant content. The company is working on a ‘manager bot’ that will use AI to monitor employees remotely and remind them of approaching deadlines. Tools such as Microsoft Office will also be able to compare our performance against literally hundreds of millions of users around the world, provide us with personal productivity data and even offer training tips and instructional guidance on how to become more efficient at any task we are undertaking. Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of investment firm Bridgewater Associates, is devising a way to micromanage every activity undertaken by employees using AI and location tracking devices.

The Next Horizon

The next wave of developments in the coming five years will see the emergence of a variety of technology solutions designed to help workplaces run more smoothly and allow us to better balance work/life requirements and priorities.

AI Human Resources: Artificial intelligence is already changing the way Human Resources (HR) operates. Perhaps we are edging towards human-less HR with AI-based applications for manpower planning, recruitment, selection, appointment, onboarding, offboarding, performance monitoring, contract management, automated matching of skills and experience to workplace needs and determination of rewards and benefits for employees, contractors, and ‘gig-bots’ alike. Smart HR applications could also monitor us via all our devices and detect factors such as stress levels, distraction, the extent of social conversation we engage in and when we are performing at our peak. Personal fitness trackers and the algorithmic managers described earlier are already taking us some way along this path.

Personal Robo-Delivery: Small autonomous robots are already delivering fast food and mail. Soon, they could perform tasks such as mail delivery in the workplace and running errands for our employees while they are at work. For example, when an employee’s grocery order or dry cleaning becomes available for collection, the firm’s robot would be alerted to set out through the town to pick up items from the local shops and either deliver them to employees’ homes or to their workplace. Providing such devices as an employment benefit would help take the edge off the work/life balance struggle and make companies more attractive to prospective employees.

The More Distant Future

When we look further ahead on a five to 10-year timescale, a range of even more dramatic and disruptive developments become possible.

Automated Sharing: Within the next seven to 10 years, estimates suggest that upwards of a trillion objects could have embedded sensors and an internet connection – this Internet of Things (IoT) could transform many aspects of workplace management. Glance around your workplace at the objects and facilities that are barely used, from meeting rooms to printers and kitchen equipment. What if we could use the information from these sensors to bring the sharing economy to bear in the workplace? Data from our local IoT could help reduce the amount we have to spend on these resources or generate an income from them – swapping ownership for usership and access.

Sensors embedded in devices and objects could provide usage information and help identify opportunities to share, ie. to rent or loan out your stapler, conference room or office cafeteria for a day or an hour. Local internet-based applications could provide a platform for inter-office sharing and rental throughout a locality. Such an approach could help cut back on overconsumption and waste. Sharing might also reduce asset investment costs and the duplication of office supplies and cut the number of hours employees spend searching for and ordering supplies. Indeed, one day, smart software could undertake all our procurement and sharing responsibilities – renting out or sharing our under-utilised assets and finding the nearest available portable heater, projector screen and short notice meeting facilities on demand.

Digital Twins: Using data from our connected devices, organisations will have the potential to collect massive amounts of data about a person and their reactions, ways of thinking and individual preferences. Hence, physical and virtual robots could one day be able to replicate a person’s behaviour and responses. In fact, your digital twin could attend a meeting for you and comment on your behalf, while you continue working on other tasks from home or your desk. Your twin could also capture, summarise and report back on the entire conversation, including analysis of the softer emotional content of the meeting.

By analysing body language and micro-facial expressions of the other participants, our twin could tell us about the mood of the meeting and people’s reactions to ideas being discussed – something we might have picked up on intuitively had we been there. A reliable clone in the form of a digital twin may relieve a lot of the stress and tension of workplace obligations for individuals with increasingly pressurised workloads. Our digital twin might take the form of a physical robot, a desktop device such as a laptop or a smart hologram.

Life Automation: Connected devices and ‘life automation’ apps might share your agenda and habits to plan the flow of your day from your bed to your workplace and back again. These devices, coupled with highly controllable micro-environments, could allow you to experience the ideal balance of temperature, air conditioning, sound proofing and ambient aromas without impacting the person sat next to you at all.

Music from your home surround system could automatically keep playing in your headphones after you leave your apartment, switch to the in-car system if you get behind the wheel and then continue playing at your desk when you start work. The home heating system or personal workplace micro-environment would turn on when you are 10 minutes away. Food would be delivered or ready to eat minutes after you break for lunch or walk in the front door at the end of the day.

Conclusion – We Can, But Should We?

The boundaries between reality and science fiction continue to blur as emerging technologies accelerate at an exponential pace. The challenge is to identify the kind of workplace culture and environment we want and then deploy these shiny new tech toys in service of those ambitions, helping people perform at their best and happiest.

The Authors

The authors are futurists with Fast Future – a professional foresight firm specialising in delivering keynote speeches, executive education, research and consulting on the emerging future and the impacts of change for global clients.

Fast Future publishes books from leading future thinkers around the world, exploring how developments such as AI, robotics, exponential technologies and disruptive thinking could impact individuals, societies, businesses and governments, and create the trillion-dollar sectors of the future. Fast Future has a particular focus on ensuring these advances are harnessed to unleash individual potential and enable a very human future. See: www.fastfuture.com