Work has always been the cornerstone of human existence. Our value as individuals, organizations, communities and even country states are indeed defined by our productivity at our places of work. And it’s this point of productivity that is particularly interesting, because we as a species have been chasing productivity improvement for millennia. But the truth is, we have only truly mastered exponential productivity improvement in the last couple of hundred years. And why is this, considering that this is something humans have been chasing for the last 4,000 years? Well ultimately, it comes down to the instruments or the tools we have to do work. Each stage of industrial revolution ushered in new tools with which we had to shape our environment, each bringing with it new levels of productivity. Think of the rise of steam power and mechanical automation in the 19th century, which transformed the UK into a manufacturing powerhouse. Or electricity which initially gave us the lightbulb and allowed our workplaces to operate at all times of the day. And what about the binary computer which gave every man and woman in our organizations the calculative ability that was previously the preserve of only the intellectual elite.
But today, as we enter industry 4.0, we prepare to get to grips with the greatest digital build out humanity has ever experienced. This coming tech revolution is going to fundamentally shift the way we live and most importantly, the way we work. Our new tools for work will open up levels of productivity, insight, automation and ease of use, previously thought of as science fiction.
Just think of our most basic interaction with the modern work environment, the keyboard and the touch screen. Very soon, the keyboard will have the same nostalgic feel as the rotary dial telephone. Imminently our working days will consist of a series of terse voice commands, “Siri print this page for me”, “Cortana, open a spreadsheet and work out the standard deviation of my latest sales figures.” Yes, the convenience of our home smart speakers are on the cusp of growing up, leaving home, putting on a digital suit (or hoodie!) and joining us at work.
But what about the places we work? Well these are set to expand… exponentially. The ways we connect to our digital colleagues, customers and partners are set to become supercharged through new technologies. Imagine sitting in your self-driving car, wearing a VR headset, digitally “walking” next to your colleague as he leads you through the latest updates to your organisations smart factory. This type of interaction will be the reality of our future working lives due to the emergence of 5G internet connection coupled with edge computing. South Korea was the first country to roll out 5G and has been closely followed by others including the US, Sweden, Turkey and the UK. Edge computing is also gaining traction, with global spending on the technology expected to reach $11.2 billion by 2024.
But what about the processing power at the heart of these innovations? Well the change in this area is set to be massive, and the implications of this change are going to bring to life what has until now, been science fiction. In the near term we are on the brink of exascale computing (computers capable of a quintillion calculations per second), the Argonne National Laboratory is aiming to launch its exascale super–computer, Aurora, in 2021. Exascale computers will provide the spark to more intelligent AI, make predicting crimes a reality (Minority Report comes to life!), and diagnose cancer with 100% accuracy. And then as Moores Law finally starts to fail us (likely expected by 2022), quantum computing will step in. D-Wave, IBM and Intel are at the forefront of bringing quantum out of the lab and into our lives. The implications of this new computing power is difficult to predict but this could well lead to Artificial General Intelligence and yes, we might have an Ex Machina style robot in our offices in the next two decades.
Our working lives are set to change drastically over the coming years, moving from a state of productivity frustration to productivity abundance. Leading this step change will be the changing tools we use to get the work done.