Futurist Jack Uldrich: Abundance will make us redefine what leisure time is

Our workplaces have already been revolutionised by technology, but could it allow us to work closer to home? We speak to to futurist Jack Uldrich to find out how work technology will change our culture and lives

Q: How is technology going to change the way in that we work?

From my perspective, the really big change and the thing that is difficult to understand is how all of these technologies, from computer processing power, data storage, bandwidth, mobile devices, the internet of things, they’re not just individual technologies.

They are going to converge in some really unexpected ways and as a futurist – no-one can predict the future, I don’t claim to – but I really think we’re on the verge of the next work-related revolution.

The analogy I use is Gutenberg’s printing press. Gutenberg’s genius wasn’t that he created that out of thin air.

His genius was that he took four existing technologies, he took the line press, movable type, ink and paper and he converged those four into a technology that revolutionised the world. And when I think about computer and advances in computer processing power that is one technology.

We’re going to start trading the idea of ownership for access to certain products and technologies”

The next one is data storage and that is cloud computing, so that is the second one. The third one is mobility and the number of smart devices that are going to continue to come on the planet, and then the fourth one is high speed internet access.

You begin playing around with those four technologies, I am just convinced that there is going to be a new platform from which we conduct our work. We’re already seeing just with cloud.

As a result of the four trends I just talked about – computer processing, power, mobility, storage – it’s transferring the automobile industry in some unexpected ways.

Daimler, the German automobile company, has discovered more and more young people in urban areas don’t want to own a car and they don’t really need to own a car anymore because they have smartphones and there’s GPS technology that allows them to locate a car that allows them to rent it for a couple of minutes at a time, so they are trading ownership for access to a vehicle and it is all of these technologies that are facilitating that transformation.

And, I think that sort of points to one of the subtle ways that business is going to change and customer behaviour is going to change. We’re going to start trading the idea of ownership for access to certain products and technologies.


Q: Given they are very distinct at present, how do you think these technologies will converge?

I think just in the context of work that this idea that we’re going to do our work anywhere in the world.

Absolutely anywhere, but we’re going to be able to collaborate with our colleagues and our co-workers who are also anywhere on this planet.

It’s going to have a really deep and profound impact on how we think about work. The amount of physical retail space that is dedicated to work environments is astounding, and then the impact on energy and climate.

Because of all these extra buildings and driving to and from them, powering them and cooling them, it is an extraordinary cost on society. Is that really the way we need to do work in this new environment?

I really think we’re going to figure out how to make a lot more efficient use of the spaces that we need”

We’re already seeing the early shifts, but I really think we’re going to figure out how to make a lot more efficient use of the spaces that we need and what we’re going to come to discover is that we don’t need as many physical spaces as we do and that’s going to have an impact on real-estate, it’s going to have an impact on how we then travel to and from work because we then might not need to be doing as much of it.

Then the question comes about what do we do with all that excess space and here’s where as a futurist I just start on speculating on what some scenarios might be.

Because other technologies are getting better, LED lighting for example, sensor technology and advances in vertical farming or hydroponic farming, we might be able to convert a lot of buildings and grow produce in those buildings, so instead of growing things out on the countryside or on the other side of the world and then shipping those bananas or whatever to London, what happens if we can actually begin to repurpose those buildings to grow a fair amount of our produce in our local communities?

To me that is a sort of interesting possibility because that then further reduces the stress on the climate because we are not shipping bananas all the way across the ocean and were not putting them on trucks and delivering them to the grocery store and cooling them and storing them and packing them, we’re really growing them as close to the consumer as possible.


Q: What will this mean for the difference in our work and life balance?

To tell you the truth, as a futurist I always do this paradoxically. Most people plan for a future, because we’ve grown up in a world of relative scarcity, or we always think that things might be going away so we will just price them accordingly and the wealthy will be able to afford it an everyone else is out of luck, but I really think that in the future the biggest cultural challenge is going to be abundance.

We’re going to have an abundance of clean sustainable energy. I think we’re going to have an abundance of high-quality affordable education as a result in advances in online education and MOOCs (massive open online courses).

Healthcare in many cases is going to get significantly better to prevent disease from ever occurring in the first place, so I am really optimistic about these technologies.

Abundance is going to drive some really strange cultural shifts

But then I think the biggest cultural challenge is what then do we do in a world where our health is really good for a long period of time and I have access to the world’s best professors and I can get credit for those and I can teach myself new skills at virtually no cost and I am living in a house where I don’t have to really pay anything for energy as I am producing the energy myself.

Abundance is going to drive some really strange cultural shifts and I think a couple I see are how we have re-think what leisure is, today too many people view leisure as they’re done with work and they go and binge watch a Netflix series or go to a movie or a sporting event.

Those things are still going to exist, but I don’t think they are enough to provide people with deep meaning in their lives and so how do we create meaning with the excess time that we have, I don’t know the answer to that, but I think that culture, how we answer that question, will define what our culture is like.

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Q: Will the work day change from a 9-5 concept, and how will more leisure time affect us?

One hundred years ago – at least in the US and I suspect in the UK – 50% of all Americans either lived or worked or were closely related to the agricultural industry, they lived or worked on farms, they didn’t think about work-life balance just because it was all together.

They worked and lived at the same time and in the same place, on the farm. It has really been the last hundred years that has been the historical anomaly.

That’s when we have suddenly lived in one place and then physically went to a different place to work, that’s what is odd.

We are going back in history where we are going to do a lot more of our work from our homes    

We are going back in history where we are going to do a lot more of our work from our homes and so I actually think that the whole question of work-life balance is going to fade away and we’re just going to acknowledge that work is part of life, and life is part of work and we will do work when we need to and we will have leisure when we don’t need to do work-related activates.

From the futurist perspective I think the question is going to fade away.


Q: Will there be any downsides this change in the way we work and resulting new technology?

The transition is going to be difficult and I don’t mean to downplay it. When I look at a lot of these technological advances in robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, is there going to be job displacement? Absolutely. And is it going to adversely affect people? Yes it will.

But during the industrial revolution that was a difficult transition period as a lot of people moved from rural areas to urban environments, it wasn’t easy but for the most part society in most parts handled that transition relatively well.

There were riots, there were strikes and strife but for the most part, in the industrial developed world, it has been managed well and so it is going to be a difficult transition but I think at the end of the day humans really are creative and we’re going to figure out how to navigate in to this new future and to figure out how to mould life and work into something that is sustainable for ourselves, our communities and ultimately the planet.

Images courtesy of Tropinina Olga / Shutterstock.com

Forget Siri: The virtual assistants of the future will transform the way we work and live

 Forget Siri, before long you’ll be aided by a virtual assistant that knows and understands you better than anyone. We finds out how this will change everything.

Surging technological advancements have had a remarkable impact on the way we live and work. With a smartphone in our pocket, we can know just about anything simply by asking. But this is nothing on what the virtual assistants of the future will give us.

Tailored to our every need and designed to compile everything from fitness and mental data to our schedules and interests, virtual assistants will provide assistance throughout our lifetime with everything from daily tasks to long-term goal achievement. They will monitor, support and coach us, changing with us as we grow, and likely know us better than anyone in the world.

The concept has been formed as a result of research by Dr Chris Brauer, Goldsmiths Institute of Management Studies director of innovation and founder of the Centre for Creative and Social Technologies, in partnership with trend research agency Mindshare.

Virtual assistants will provide assistance throughout our lifetime with everything from daily tasks to long-term goal achievement

“It really emerged from all the work we had being doing around wearable technologies,” says Brauer, explaining how a need for real-time feedback had been commonly expressed by potential users. “It sort of turned us back around to virtual assistants, something we’d always been interested in and we’d been looking at previously but not in any detail.”

But instead of simply looking at the technological capabilities, Brauer and his team focused on speaking to potential users to determine what the most likely elements of such a virtual assistant, or VA for short, would be and how people would respond to them.

“We embarked upon our project virtual assistant in partnership with Mindshare to investigate what these things might look like in the future and what people would really want from such a service,” he says.


Natural language parsing

Siri, Google Now and other similar programs are profoundly simplistic when compared to what your typical virtual assistant will be like. It will, however, have listening capabilities, although at a far more advanced level.

“From our own research we’re looking at more of a hearable-type technology indicated as a preference for people, perhaps something embedded within the ear that is then very good at gathering physiological data but can also interact with voice recognition systems,” explains Brauer.

This technology will be capable of parsing natural language – something that very high-end technologies can already achieve.

“We see the stuff with IBM and the True North chip and the semantic chips that are developed with brain-like architectures to process, and we think that something like that will be at the core of the actual processing capabilities, so that the virtual assistant is performed and architected more like the human mind, say for example, than the traditional processor,” he says.

However, this level of sophistication is likely to come in over time, with the earliest technologies that can truly be called virtual assistants emerging very soon.

The first virtual assistant will be mainstream in about five years’ time

“The first virtual assistant will be mainstream in about five years’ time,” says Brauer.

“Although that’s not going to be the whole robust hard AI solution inside of a device like that, they will have very robust capabilities integrating across all the services that we typically get right now through very specific applications, but integrated together, and then the data from our bodies and increasingly our minds also being ported in there to get more intrapersonal awareness.”


Adopting virtual assistants

When we first get this technology, Brauer believes there will be an initial period where people are getting to grips with what it can do for them.

“Essentially in that first stage [users need] to be able to experiment with it and see what aspects of a virtual assistant are useful in their lives,” he explains. “That process of discovery and experimentation will be critical in the beginning.”

Once users are used to the technology, the next stage will be compiling your own VA from an array of different modules and components developed by different companies.

“What features and functionality does it have? What are the privacy and payment models in which the VA is functioning in relation to you?” asks Brauer.

From there it is a case of living with the VA as a constant companion and adjusting it in response to your own evolving needs.

While the features, functionality even the identity of the VA will change through a lifetime, the concept of a VA will be with you all the time as a fluid companion in life

“While the features, functionality even the identity of the VA will change through a lifetime, the concept of a VA will be with you all the time as a fluid companion in life,” adds Brauer.

Brauer believes that for the majority of us, building the VA from different components will b a simple process aided by a user-friendly system.

“There will be a fairly simple process you can go through in order to find that. It’s the direction we’re seeing a lot of these industries go – choosing your service provider will be not unlike the way we deal with our mobile phone providers , where we’re looking at different plans, different opportunities to leverage different aspects of virtual assistant capability,” he explains.

“I think the intelligence of the virtual assistant will reside in the cloud and then there will be a layer of service providers that will develop specific services harnessing the power of that intelligence and making it easy for users to plug into.”

However, technologically savvy users will not have to take this approach if they do not want to.

“There will be users who will just access the core intelligence and then configure it for their own needs,” adds Brauer.


Life management by AI

Brauer believes that VAs will change our lives in many different ways, depending on how we use them.

“We saw daily management skills, things like capturing your ideas and thoughts in real-time, making suggestions based on information that they know about your behaviours and your patterns and so on, issuing reminders and persuasive indicators as configured by the user to help guide you through situations,” he explains, giving the example of a VA prompting you to go to bed if it’s getting late and you have an early meeting.

“In daily management we think it will be critical in relation to health,” he adds.

“Monitoring your health condition, monitoring physiological and data coming from the body, helping you to lead a healthier lifestyle by monitoring the ingredients and the components of the various foods that you’re either thinking of eating or ingesting and working that way to support you in your own targets around the lifestyle that you’re wanting to lead.”

However, the technology will have a significant emotional component, with the capability to “emotionally and behaviourally supporting you”, something that robotics technology is making key strides in at present.

With virtual assistants, the data collection will help us to learn things about ourselves that we never knew, much in the way that big data is revealing never-before-realised facts about the world’s cities.

“I think making visible that which isn’t immediately apparent both about ourselves and about our lives will have a big impact on how we perceive the balance between work and play and living,” says Brauer.


Replacing human assistants

Inevitably perhaps, VAs will oust many real personal assistants, not just because they can do their job, but because they can do their job better than a typical human.

“Virtual assistants will link with each other to make logistical coordinations in the same way a PA would,” he explains, but adds that VAs will provide a second component most PAs do not.

“The virtual assistant will have a much more personal aspect, in terms of intimate knowledge of the individual, so it could also make recommendations,” he explains.

Virtual assistants will link with each other to make logistical coordinations in the same way a PA would

“A lot of PAs and assistants are strictly reactive or responsive, there are some that are able to sort of provide some insight to the people they’re supporting about ways in which they can make changes and so on to do higher performance, but they’re not so much coaches as they are just assistants.

“We see virtual assistants being able to play that coaching role as well, which would add significant additional functionality to the traditional PA role.”

Changing the web

Because of their connected nature and continued presence, Brauer believes that VAs will become our primary gateway to the internet.

This in itself is significant because it has the potential to significantly change the way the internet is designed as it becomes shaped to best supply VAs with the information they require.

“I think it’s going to be somewhat of a revolution not unlike the Google interface and search and the simplicity of it, and the way in which the page rank algorithm completely reconfigured the way we access knowledge,” Brauer explains.

I see this virtual assistant playing a very similar role in developing an entire new generation of ways in which we access knowledge and information.

“I see this virtual assistant playing a very similar role in developing an entire new generation of ways in which we access knowledge and information.

“We’ve always talked about a kind of Google for the brain so somehow you could just think it instead of needing to access it. This is the beginnings of that interface, and at the moment we’re using a textual interface and doing search queries in that way and I think that’s going to evolve quite quickly to be a voice command primarily.

“But there’s also emotional recognition systems and so that we think will be plugged into these things, so we imagine the virtual assistant having the capabilities to assess things about the user as they interact with the service.”


Implanted virtual assistants

With VAs constantly with us, Brauer sees it as likely that eventually the technology will progress to an implant.

“I think that we’ve moved from desktops, to laptops, to mobiles, to wearables to this VA, which is an almost angelic, formless technology which can shapeshift into various devices and settings,” he says.

“As a result of that its going to start to become really critical that they are with you all the time, and we’ve got our phones with us all the time in most cases, but even at that it’s a significant liability to have this physical device augmenting your everyday lives.

“If there was a way for the phone capabilities and all of the richness to be integrated as an implant option, I think a lot of people would consider that. If it’s your gateway to the world, and you carry it with you then it makes more sense to have it within you.”


Virtual assistants and death

With VAs having such a significant role in our lives, it is perhaps inevitable that they would become invaluable assets upon our death.

Brauer says he was surprised at how much this topic came up within his research, but it is clearly a matter that people are concerned with.
“People are really starting to be aware of how deeply involved these things would get with our lives, how that may mean that they know you better than anyone else, and then if you pass away you need to deal with that as an asset effectively,” he says.

VAs could play a number of roles in death, such as providing a resource about you for future generations of your family.

“Your VA is something that has infinite knowledge of you and therefore can serve as a really rich depository of information and capabilities for people of future generations to understand, so we can imagine whole generations of families working with a VA in a fluid way as it transports across generations,” he explains.

For many, VAs will be a key feature in wills as an important asset to protect.

There would be a lot that were incorporated into wills, they’ll be quite robust assets in a lifetime because they’ll contain not just all this knowledge about you but the experiences

“There would be a lot that were incorporated into wills, they’ll be quite robust assets in a lifetime because they’ll contain not just all this knowledge about you but the experiences and so on,” says Brauer.

For notable individuals, VAs could even be used as valued historical documents and bequeathed to respected research institutions.

“You could donate your VA for example to research or to charity; museums would have VAs of particular individuals that were available,” adds Brauer.

In the long run, though, VAs could fundamentally change humanity as we know it.

Many believe we are quickly heading towards the singularity – where machines become capable of creating even better machines, initiating a cycle of development humans have no place in.

In this situation, we would need to augment ourselves to avoid being left behind by these machines, and Brauer sees VAs as a key part of this.
“Virtual assistants are very much a product of that trajectory to a transhuman state, to very much a human-cyborg relationship where us and technology become one, not distinct, entities and what it means to be human changes.”


Cortana image courtesy of Microsoft