Jules Verne described flying bicycles in his visions of the future.
Jules Verne described flying bicycles in his visions of the future. Illustration by DukeOGlue (DeviantArt)

Three technologies that will radically change how we work

We’re at a point where new technologies will upend many things held as “true” or “unchangeable” and radically affect what many take for granted. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the Internet of things will change our professional lives, whether we want it or not.

I’ve had a fascination with the future for as long as I can remember. I started reading science fiction when I was around eleven or twelve. It might have been Swedish SF writer George Johansson that opened my eyes to ideas about what life might be like in a hundred or two hundred years from now.

I went on to read classic SF from the ‘40s, ’50s and ’60s. All of them visionary, yet so colored by their own time. The ideals and the hopes of a society that didn’t exist anymore. SF is quite rare in how it reflects its own time as well as its ideas for the future. Not all of those ideas fared better in reality than in the minds of their creators and writers. But some did and are on the verge of entering the mainstream.

Here are three of those that will likely shape our lives in the next decades:

AI - artificial intelligence

To me, AI today seems like the lure of nuclear power in the ’50s. The flame of the gods, or in this case, the cognitive power of the divine. While the risks of AI should not be ignored few technologies could potentially improve our lives as much as AI.

Taking a more positive view of AI, let’s consider some of things AI could make, or has already, made available to us.

Better customer support

This isn’t science fiction anymore but reality. Many different startups are using AI to allow companies to offer 24/7 customer support without their staff having to work nights. AI software allows you to handle all the basic requests and the customer won’t even know they’re dealing with a computer program and not a human being. A university professor created a virtual teaching assistant AI to handle emails from students and they were none the wiser.

Naturally, this requires the customer (or student) to communicate with the customer service agent in a way that doesn’t involve talking or seeing the person on the other side. It’s essentially a Turing test but for a specific subset of questions.

So next time you email customer service or communicate using a chat interface, you could be talking to a “bot”!

Self-driving cars

If there was one thing that surprised many last year it was how far this research has come in a rather short time. Google has been doing research in self-driving cars for many years now but few knew exactly how far the research had come. Even I, who keep an eye on these things, was surprised. I’d been sure working self-driving cars were at least five years to a decade in the future. Road situations are tricky to write software for and there’s a lot of human judgment going into piloting a vehicle down a road. But so called “deep learning” has made it possible for software to “learn” how to do things. It’s rooted in research from the ‘60s but I believe it’s not until now we have the hardware and the network communication technology needed for large-scale deployment of technology based on it.

Technology developments tend to follow an S-shaped curve. In other words, once adoption starts it accelerates. It’s like the ketchup bottle. You shake and shake and shake and nothing happens, then it all comes out at once, staining your shirt in the process. In this case the repercussions will be greater than a trip to the dry cleaner’s. Many jobs will disappear as machines take over. Truck drivers, bus drivers and taxi drivers will be displaced by vehicles that don’t tire, don’t make mistakes and result in even more energy-efficient transportation.

I recall asking a friend from middle school about what he’d do once machines took over. He’s been a trucker since age 18 and he seems to love it. He said he didn’t think a computer could do what he did. That machines just aren’t smart enough.

Unfortunately I think they already are smart enough to do enough of what he does so well to make replacing him, and many others, an attractive option from a financial point of view.

Office clerk work, a thing of the past?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Many jobs can potentially be automated. Much work that is done on offices can be done by smart machines. Bookkeeping is one such activity which follows rather logical rules, at least what small companies are concerned. It’s not impossible to train a machine to know how to file itemized expenses.

But even some professions in law are at risk. A law firm recently “hired” an AI to do the kind of grunt work that junior staff has traditionally been assigned to do. It does it fast, accurately and it doesn’t tire. On the flip side, the attorneys can focus on creating a strategy for their clients instead of wading through old court cases to find a legal precedent relevant to the case at hand.

IoT - Internet of things

Much of the AI technologies I’ve mentioned above depend on context. And in the world of technology, context is made possible using networks. And communication over networks is evolving at an incredible rate. And it isn’t just us talking more, message more and hanging out on Facebook. The sea change is in computers talking to computers. This next step is known as the “Internet of things” or IoT for short.

When I say “computer” I mean any kind of small, embedded circuit or chip which can run program code and communicate with other devices. Thanks to modern semiconductors, these can be made smaller and smaller. They use less power and can often be powered by sunlight or simply by being moved, as in being built into a shoe.

This opens up tons of new possibilities:

  • In the case of the shoe, your running shoes could report on your running habit and tell you whether you risk injuring yourself based on how you run.
  • Recently, a patent was filed for making the bolts in aircraft self-report their “tightness”, helping the ground crew know exactly what bolts need tightening or replacing.
  • The idea of the “smart” home becomes realizable as we can cheaply monitor almost every aspect or part of our house.
  • You’ll know the state of your car’s tires and know when they’re worn down too much to be safe.

But all isn’t great. As it suddenly becomes possible to monitor more things, and cheaply, more than you will want access to the data. Insurance companies would nothing rather than to be able to build a comprehensive picture of your driving, eating, shower and love-making habits in order to minimize risk. And your car’s manufacturer will likely expect a bizarre amount of insight into where and how you drive and motivate with some drivel about increase road safety. The opportunities of customer deception are huge as people will give intimate access to themselves, swayed by comfort and effective marketing.

The Internet of things will require new privacy laws and increased consumer awareness to ensure the technology doesn’t help bring about a police state.

VR – Virtual reality

If one were to describe virtual reality, or VR, describing it like a movie series would be rather fitting. So far, VR has been a two-movie affair. The first one catching the public’s attention in the early ‘90s. Bulky colorful helmets and blocky graphics. But it was enough to show the capabilities.

Here’s a clip from 1991. While the graphics are dated, the technology isn’t too different from what we have now:

The sequel, “The Return of VR”, came out just recently but it hasn’t been distributed to all movie theatres yet. But once people get a peek at it, they’re hooked and say it’s the best thing ever. Question is, will we see a third installment fulfilling everything those first two promised?

The VR headsets that we’ve seen so far have been rather clunky, bulky affairs. They’ve been rather geeky, to be honest. I’ve tried the Oculus Rift and while the experience is weird at first, there’s never a full sense of immersion. It feels like looking at the world through a diving mask. The field of view is too small (100 degrees). The StarVR promises a FOV of over 200 degrees.

As is usually the case, technology tends to shrink, become lighter and get better performance specs. VR will become even less of a niche technology because the possibilities offered are just too great to stay out of the mainstream. VR headsets will eventually be very discreet and likely another part of our phone/communication device we carry with us. It means partial immersive virtual communication anywhere.

The virtual water cooler

While VR has massive potential for entertainment, we’ll also see massive advances in communications applications and telepresence. VR can potentially help solve some of needs of the virtual workplaces that will replace many offices.

I’ve been evangelizing the benefits of virtual workplaces and remote teams for years. Many of the objections I hear when talking about virtual teams have to do with video chat not being like a real meeting. It’s an excellent point. Meeting people face to face isn’t at all like talking to someone on a screen.

I usually talk about it in terms of bandwidth. A full face-to-face meetings offer full bandwidth. A video conversion offers a bit less. A phone call less than half. A chat conversation less than nothing and an email even less.

Using this model would position VR somewhere between video call and physically meeting someone.

Now you might argue what we don’t need to virtual workplaces, hence we don’t need VR. But I disagree. The possibilities are just too many to ignore. Virtual teams allow companies to attract the best talent, wherever it is. It also offers unprecedented freedom for individuals to contribute wherever they are. For the time being, it’s also an effective way to small companies to pick up talents by offering a kind of freedom bigger companies cannot due to cultural inertia.

The so called “millennials” are entering the workforce and their expectations are rather different from many of us already in it. These individuals seem to prefer work-life balance and self-determination over salary or bonus compensation. They have a strong sense of self and a need to contribute and gain recognition. This is why organizations need to become better at entrusting staff. They also need to show staff how their work contributes to the company as a whole and how it’s relevant to their personal goals.

Virtualization can help companies create the next generation of workplace needed to attract the future talent while at the same time provide exceptional value to customers.

But it doesn’t end with a virtual water cooler or meeting room. The potential is so much greater. Telepresence and virtual reality can open up for a new breed of businesses that do not have physical addresses yet provide the same services as many traditional firms. We are seeing the birth of some form of “cyberspace” (borrowing William Gibson’s classic term) where we can interact, sell, trade and work regardless of where happen to be. Fifth generation mobile networks and lightweight VR headsets, likely integrated in our smartphones or watches, will make it possible to virtually take your business wherever you go in order to counsel, advise or diagnose a client, customer or patient.

Illustration by DukeOGlue (DeviantArt)

This article was updated on 2020-03-01

Jakob Persson

Your host. A founder and entrepreneur since 20 years. Having worked as a freelancer, consultant and co-founder of a successful digital agency has shaped his skills in and insights into business. Jakob blogs at blog.bondsai.io, speaks at events and consults with agencies and freelancers in growing and developing their companies. He holds degrees in media technology and cognitive science.