Forget back to normal: the future of work is immersive

The CIPD’s Future of Work Festival this week heard that virtual reality is likely to blur the lines between online and offline work in the future.

Networking

 

The future of work is one where we will be increasingly working in immersive online environments and where the line between online and offline is increasingly blurred, the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development’s Festival of Work conference heard this week.

Dr Ayesha Khanna, Co-Founder and CEO of Addo, an artificial intelligence (AI) solutions firm, told the conference that in the future people will be able to work in a virtual global office. Wearing VR glasses, they will be able to hear office sounds and technology will be able to mimic the expressions and other non-verbal cues of other people in this virtual world. People will even be able to shake hands. “It will feel like we know these people,” said Dr Khanna.

Work will seem much more like a computer game, she added. Already three billion gamers are playing in the Metaverse, collaborating in an immersive environment and trading skills and services using their own digital currency, she said. The mayor of South Korea already has an office in the Metaverse with an avatar representing him. And already companies such as McDonald’s do a sizable portion of their business through digital channels.

Smart buildings

Homes and buildings will also change, said Dr Khanna. Homes will have their own compact gyms and AI trainers who can push people to test their limits through reading their biometric data. Smartphones will be able to send health updates directly to the doctor. “Any space could become a clinic or a gym,” she added.

She also spoke about China’s plan to create the world’s first resilient city, which would be resistant to all kinds of crisis, from pandemics to climate change. The city is designed to be hyper local and sustainable. Everything will be available within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Residents will be able to use 3D printing to print out anything they need for the home and will grow their own food. The idea is that the environment you live in affects how well you work. In Tokyo, said Dr Khanna, some new buildings are being designed to have their own digital presence and for people to be able to interact with them about building-related problems or even their own health, with the building able to read biometric signals and recommend treatments. The aim is to maximise the time people have to focus on work and family or community life.

Dr Khanna said AI will revolutionise – and is already changing – the commercial world. She cited an example of a plant-based mayonnaise firm which used AI to find the perfect recipe and has become the second best mayonnaise supplier in Chile in a very short time period as a result. AI can speed up innovation and can catalyse human ideas, said Dr Khanna, adding that it cannot replace humans as yet. It cannot come up with the ideas or the values that sell them, but it can crunch numbers fast, she said. In the future all businesses will include AI assistants and people will use them to negotiate everything from childcare to active ageing facilities which will free up people’s time to focus on work they find interesting. Already people are ‘dating’ AI online boyfriends and girlfriends to combat loneliness and downloading Replika – described as an AI friend – to have conversations with AI about art or other hobbies.

Regulation and ethics

The problem is if AI is used to extract people’s personal data and sell it to others, said Dr Khanna. However, with good regulation and good governance this can be addressed. Alexa and smartphones are already recording personal data in any event. It is not about whether this is right or wrong, said Dr Khanna. It is already happening.

What we need to do is understand our value as humans and how we can best interact with AI. And everyone has to be included in the discussions about AI innovation to avoid bias creeping into the system. Diverse teams are vital. Through the charity 21C Girls [21st Century Girls], Dr Khanna works to teach girls about coding and AI. “All of us can be part of the fourth industrial revolution,” she said, adding that AI can make our lives easier, make us more productive and creative and able to have more meaningful relationships, but only if it is properly and ethically regulated.

In the discussion after her keynote, Dr Khanna was asked about whether AI could become sentient. She didn’t think this would happen any time soon, but did not rule it out or that humans may one day merge with AI. However, she said this made it all the more important for people to learn more about it so that they do not feel helpless or passive. She also spoke about the need for lifelong retraining possibilities and a safety net for those who are unable to work.



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