New Jobs, New Workers, and New Digital Frontiers

The workplace has changed a lot, in the last 20 years. Today, there’s some form of computer at every desk, telecommuting is common, and traditional cubicles have given way to more collaborative work spaces.

Where do we go, from here?

Well, PSFK, a popular blog that also acts as a consultancy, has come up with its own version of the future of work, based on ideas that are already gaining ground. Their report runs to 138 pages (and costs around $150), but I've summarised several of the main points (and some input from other sources) below.

New Jobs...

A recent LSE/PSI project suggests the existence of a digital divide, with manual workers having less opportunity to learn and exercise new information-based skills - even though their knowledge of IT is substantial, from using computers at home.

At government level, there's a widespread belief that the key to genuine improvements lies in encouraging more skills training among employees - especially in the areas of information and telecommunications technology. Policy-makers see raising the level and value of formal educational qualifications as vital to improving competency at work, and promoting more innovation and creativity.

In future, learning initiatives for young entrepreneurs will become common. In the Enstitute model, university students are matched with start-ups, where they learn the ins-and-outs of a company, take relevant Skillshare classes, work on projects, and sit in on panels.

Virtual learning libraries will abound, where entrepreneurial experts can leave advice in written and video form. There's a precedent for this, in today's online education industry.

Rise of the Machine

In the 19th and 20th centuries, waves of automation eliminated jobs in key economic sectors like agriculture. Yet, when workers learned the necessary skills, new opportunities were identified, and labour could be redeployed.

Automation is here to stay, and will continue to sweep across nearly every vertical industry and market sector. It's believed that the new trend in Labour Force Innovation will create more time for workers to think creatively, innovate, and be more stimulated and engaged in their work, after repetitive tasks are reduced.

New Workers...

·   The rise of wearable devices with built-in sensors will usher in the Quantified Worker. Analysis of data from badges, name tags, wristwatches and other gadgets worn by employees will give management new insights into who's interacting with whom, and which environments are most innovative and productive.

·   Social prestige will become more integrated into working life. A video game company called Valve already uses a peer ranking system, to keep track of employee skill levels, contributions, and overall "value".

·   An office feedback culture will develop, where employees can post ideas in real-time to online suggestion boxes. There may be "workplace sentiment readings," and anonymous feedback systems which block the identity of giver and receiver.

·   Skills marketplaces - social tools allowing employers to quickly assess an applicant's skills - will become popular. Mozilla’s Open Badges project, which lets people display their skills via badges on social media profiles, is an example.

·   Social communication tools like Yammer, Instant Messenger, Dropbox, and Google Docs make telecommuting possible, and will become more sophisticated. Tools like Shift will let workers collaborate across different companies, and virtual collaboration spaces will also emerge.

·   Industrial Colour has already rolled out a digital table app that works with Samsung’s Touch Table, while the design software developer Sunglass has created a program similar to AutoCAD which engineers, designers, and architects can use online.

Workspaces, Too

As an evolution from many of today’s tech company offices, we'll have the pop-up workplace:

·   modular work pods

·   attractive sound-absorbing booths

·   mobile workstations that roll around

·   "pink noise" systems that block out nearby conversations (already developed by Autodesk)

·   a serious consideration of the effects of long hours of sitting on the human body - which means standing furniture (like Focal’s), chair-based exercise systems (e.g. the OfficeGym), and treadmill workstations

New Digital Frontiers...

·   With current advances to in-home high-definition video conferencing, desk-lamp shaped projection devices, and haptic remote robots (which mirror a user’s body reactions on a robot located elsewhere), telepresence looks to be the wave of the future. Though it has a long way to go before it’s useful for office work, it may have more immediate applications in medicine, education, and retail.

·   Quantum computers have the potential to be millions of times faster than even our most powerful supercomputers. Super-secure transactions will result from quantum cryptography, and quantum data storage will achieve unparalleled densities. This new technology is expected to begin affecting our daily lives within a decade.

·   Quantum technology will accelerate the potential for genomics and nanotechnology to cure disease. Synthetic blood has already been developed, while synthetic organs and programmable cell therapies will soon be able to extend longevity, and restore bodily functions. Nanoparticles are currently being engineered to deliver drugs to specific receptors on specific cells.

·   Apple’s Siri, the conversational interface available on iPhones and iPads; and Watson, the IBM supercomputer that competed and won on the game show "Jeopardy!", may herald the arrival of strong artificial intelligence (AI). With developments in processing capacity and storage, it's projected that a human-like AI could develop as early as 2030.

So, barring an unforeseen collision with an asteroid, our future looks fairly bright.