The way in which people interact with computers is undergoing a dramatic shift, and this will have huge effect on the way we work.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, wasn’t far off the mark in predicting a future where an omnipresent machine (in this case, HAL) could assume the role of “colleague” or “crew member”, capable of speech recognition, language processing, interpreting emotional behaviour and automated reasoning, among other things.
Although we are still some way from seeing this as a reality in the workplace, it is the direction that human-computer interaction is heading, with the potential for a level playing field between human and machine.
Already, many of us are used to conversing with machines daily, making simple commands for voice assistants such as Siri and Alexa.
The digital voice assistant market is booming, and the number of voice assistants is projected to increase from 3.25-billion this year to about eight billion by 2023. We are witnessing a generation of people enter the workforce who have grown up with smartphones and voice assistants and who are asking computers to perform some of their more mundane jobs for them.
From toolbox to colleague
In the early days of computing, people served the computer, feeding it data through mechanisms such as punch cards to help keep it running. Today, the computer has evolved into more of a toolbox, accessible through the two-dimensional interface of the screen, supporting us in what we need to do. Gradually, the dynamic between human and machine is shifting, with the computer on course to become a more pervasive form of intelligence that can surface through all digital platforms and computer systems, helping people to complete their tasks more easily and efficiently.
We have only just begun to see how artificial intelligence (AI) will influence interactions between people and technology, and the capabilities of smart speakers such as Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod and Google Home are already evolving from simple voice commands to supporting ecosystems of applications and interactions in the home.
We have some way to go before we see voice and AI widely used as a component in systems for business and workflow but there are already signs of the effect this will have on the future of work. The computer is shifting from a dumb tool into a colleague or personal assistant — in the human sense of the term.
Trust and collaboration
The emotional bond between people and computers is also changing. If the two can work together in a co-operative manner, we could end up with a relationship of trust. The computer has its own way of looking at the world, helping us to be successful in other areas.
In the future workplace we may see the computer learning from the people and taking on repetitive monotonous tasks, freeing up humans to be more productive in their cognitive work. We may also see the voice assistant knowing best” in some scenarios and making recommendations to the human, calculating insights around people’s performance, advising them on how to prioritise their workload or how to make best use of the small timeframe they have for decision-making that day, or suggesting when they should take a break.
Eventually, these principles could be applied to more complex scenarios, with the computer enforcing its recommendations on its human colleague.
The future of work
To briefly revisit the analogy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, those familiar with the film will know that the computer HAL eventually takes control, putting its view of what was best for the mission ahead of what was best for its human colleagues. The scenario of a computer becoming the dominant player in human-computer interactions is of obvious concern. But our world is shaped towards human cognition and AI is still programmed by humans and hence can only advance as fast as we choose — HAL only took control because a human had programmed it to do so.
In the future, we are likely to see a closer bond forged between humans and computers, which could dramatically change the way we work, and for the better. The progression from “computer-shaped” interfaces to “human-shaped” interfaces will allow people to communicate and collaborate with computing systems in a “natural” and “human” way. In some of the cases we are exploring, human-computer interaction will be intuitive, pervasively intelligent and ultimately useful, resulting in a more collaborative workplace.