Trick or treat? What technologies of the future hold for the digital workplace
Halloween: what began as an ancient Celtic festival involving bonfires and costumes aimed at warding off deceased spirits has today become an annual pageant of all things ghoulish and ghastly.
But while thousands of years ago the cold and dark months of winter were associated with the ghosts of the dead returning, today people’s fears take a different – if similarly intangible – form.
As our day-to-day reliance on technology at work and at home increases, so too do people’s fears about the ways in which future technologies might impact our lives.
A Pew research study found that more than 70% of Americans worry about a future in which robots are capable of performing human jobs. Technologies that people don’t understand are a regular feature in Chapman University’s annual survey of fears.
Yet the benefits of technologies such as automation in the workplace have the potential to outweigh negative impacts.
Here, I’ll address some of the biggest myths and fears surround future workplace technologies.
Artificial intelligence will replace us with robots
A favorite of sci-fi authors and movie directors, artificial intelligence represents a particularly scary prospect for humans who have been – up to now – comfortable with their own autonomy.
Common fears revolve around AI replacing human workers and, eventually, the decision-making processes that guide and shape our world.
The doomsday scenario is that people end up governed by machines with black-and-white morality, incapable of empathy, and exacerbating the imperfect biases picked up from their programmers.
This is a fear based in some truth, but ultimately – like many misconceptions – it veers quite a distance from an accurate portrayal of the technology’s true capabilities.
It’s true that AI will one day be able to perform many of the tasks humans currently do. And it’s also true that AI will often perform these tasks with greater speed and accuracy.
But what subsequent assumptions about AI often ignore is that when it comes to more complex notions of common sense or emotional responses, a computer – no matter how smart – will come unstuck.
At that point, human input is absolutely vital.
Implementing artificial intelligence will free up people to focus on the more complex aspects of their work.
Put simply, to assume that AI will rule the world is to do a disservice to the incredible, unprogrammable capabilities of humankind.
Machine learning will control our lives
Closely related to AI, is machine learning. Similar misconceptions about the threat this technology poses abound.
A common fear is that, in the style of Minority Report, huge databases of information will be mined to predict events before they happen.
While this can be useful in the case of Amazon suggesting you buy a screen protector to go with the new smartphone in your shopping basket, it’s easy to let your imagination concoct more worrying scenarios.
But predicting the future – or making calculations based on the most likely outcome, as is the case in machine learning – is not the same as creating it.
As with artificial intelligence, humans have nuanced cognitive capabilities that far surpass technological alternatives.
Machine learning can be helpful in shaping our understanding of the patterns that abound in the world. It’s already being put to good use in fields such as financial modelling and traffic management.
But important decision-making is ultimately still governed by people, and that is unlikely to be different in the near or even distant future.
Driverless vehicles will bring chaos to our roads
When user-operated elevators were first introduced, it took people years to get used to the idea that they could trust the lift to move and stop safely and as instructed without the aid of a dedicated elevator operator.
We are currently in the midst of a similar age of anxiety, only this time it’s not elevators but cars that people are concerned about.
The advent of driverless cars has brought with it numerous fears over the safety of these vehicles.
Of course, people are right to prioritize safety, and to question the ability of an unmanned vehicle to keep both its passengers and pedestrians safe.
But what’s often ignored is that safety is not only a fundamental aspect of autonomous vehicle development, but that driverless cars are expected to be even safer than the vehicles currently on our roads.
In fact, safety – along with efficiency, convenience, and sustainability – is considered to be one of the main benefits of this technology.
Manufacturers are applying their years of combined experience in making our roads safe to ensure that the driverless era will offer further improvements to road safety.
When people are confronted with conundrums such as the ‘trolley problem’, what these scenarios fail to address is that an optimal driverless vehicle infrastructure would, by its very nature, eliminate such dangerous situations entirely.
And it’s at this point – once safety is guaranteed – that people will be able to spend more time considering the vast benefits of driverless systems.
Quantum computing will cause global meltdown
Quantum computing perhaps doesn’t stir the imagination in quite the same way as artificially-intelligent robot armies, but that doesn’t mean that people find its prospects any less scary.
Given the enormous power and potential of quantum computing, should it be used for malevolent purposes, the limits of its destructive potential are practically unrivalled.
Detractors would suggest that the first country to fully mobilize quantum computing will have the power to take down governments, empty bank coffers, and destroy competitors.
But, to paraphrase a famous comic book, with great technological power comes great responsibility.
Quantum technology is still in its relative infancy. What’s important in this case is that security, legislation and informed regulation is allowed to develop in tandem with the technology.
The prospect of quantum cyber-attacks is admittedly a scary one.
But we are not yet at the stage that they are an imminent threat either, and the cyber security community is already well placed to protect against these powerful attacks when they do arrive.
The future is in our hands
So, is the future of technology, and how it might impact the workplace, as scary as it seems? Or are we, in some ways, not so different from our ghost-fearing ancestors?
With a little scrutiny, it quickly becomes apparent that most of our fears around technology are really rooted in a perfectly human fear of the future – and the unknown.
But by embracing those fears, and working to better understand their causes, it’s possible to put in place future-proof strategies to ensure a thriving workplace culture that allows employees to embrace technological innovations.
And while the future might seem scary, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.