Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Will augmented humanity transform the workplace?

AH promises to transform workforces as much as automation does. AH seeks to make work lives easier, stress-free, and happier.

Technology advances have always been premised on improving the human condition. Today, we are on the cusp of an augmented age where technology is redefining the possibilities of what a human can truly be capable of. As this next phase of transformative technology advances, wearable and implanted devices will unlock human potential by tapping into our mood, heart rate and thoughts! Welcome to the brave new world of Augmented Humanity (AH)!

The term ‘Augmented Humanity’, coined by Google CEO Eric Schmidt in 2010 has gained velocity over the years. Simply put, AH refers to the use of technology to deliberately augment the human body for either medical gains, or extended human performance. AH spans near-body applications such as smartphones and sensors, on-body applications such as smart lenses and watches, and also, implanted applications such as digital tattoos, smart pills and neural lace.

While the term may be relatively new, the concept is not. Businesses have always sought the power of AH to improve customer experience. Spotify’s sensor taps into the heart rate of the listener, and chooses music to soothe the mind. Spire has an application that senses breathing patterns and sends alerts when anomalies are detected. Google has patented its Verily contact lenses that detect blood glucose level for diabetics, and Samsung has patented lenses that allows wearers to see augmented reality content. Waverly Labs and Mymanu offer smart earpieces that translate language with voice recognition in real time. L’Oréal has partnered BASF to develop and test printable human skin. Proteus is developing pills fit with sensors that will measure the effects of medicine. And this is just the beginning.

There is optimism

AH promises to transform workforces as much as automation does. AH seeks to make work lives easier, stress-free, and happier. Tomorrow’s workforce will be a mix of technically, and non-technically augmented individuals.

Ernst & Young’s recent (2018) megatrends report predicts that ‘human augmentation’ will change consumer expectation, and brands will need to reinvent themselves to meet these demands. Worldwide, industry leaders share the opinion that AI and robots won’t take away our jobs, but rather augment them by doing the things we humans don’t do so well.

AH promises to change the human experience by enabling individuals to live happier and satisfying lives. AH will also tip the scales of equality among humans in both their personal and professional lives.

Bracing up to the new norm

Among the biggest societal issues raised by AH is its potential to exacerbate the divide between the rich and the poor. Though we may have initial stark divides owing to affordability, the parity is expected to soon disappear, due to increasing adoption.

Augmenting the workforce may result in a dilemma of how to evaluate workers, tipping in favour of either the augmented, or those who aren’t. On one hand, AH will flatten the differences by eliminating disadvantages that persons with disabilities face at the workplace and create a true level playing field. On the other hand, an infusion of AH in the workforce may threaten the sanctity of guarded data and know-how, and may force security officers to find new ways to safeguard systems against the prying eyes of employees. Complex firewalls and employee control mechanisms might arise, to prevent rogue attacks and hijacking of AH wares.

In recruiting, an organization may measure augmented individuals differently than their non-augmented peers. New digital resumes may force candidates to disclose the full extent of their augmented tech. Will augmented candidates be regarded more highly, or viewed as potential hiring risks? Discrimination and bias may surface on the work floor. For example, those equipped with augmented technology may be at a greater advantage as they move quicker, see closer, or think faster. Interestingly, there can also be a reverse discrimination against ‘lesser capable’ individuals who seek cover under augmented technology to perform well!

An augmented workforce will create new legal and HR challenges, necessitating a new hiring, firing, and IP ownership policy to govern augmented workers. Today’s employees hand in their badge and laptop when they depart the company. Tomorrow’s employees may also need to de-install their company-supplied augmented devices when they resign. How will a company gauge true human capability and fix appropriate compensation scales in the light of AH infusion is an interesting moot point.

Considering the challenge of tomorrow’s mixed workforce, leaders should think strategically to choose the appropriate technology that best suits their workforce. Before rushing to implement the cool stuff, it helps to first determine the value and productivity gains that particular AH technology may bring. A retail company may go for smart eyesight that helps recognize a customer as he/she enters, and sell smart. An advertising agency may go for technology that may help build stronger emotional connections with viewers. The applications are endless.

Future promises

AH advancements have begun to revolutionize human lives by defining a new ‘normal’. At the end of the day, humans have one thing that could never possibly be replicated by an artificial system: Empathy. We can also add complex, unstructured creative thinking and advanced reasoning skills to the list of things computers would never be able to do. While the era of AH would necessitate new laws and measures to tackle safety and privacy issues, and to avoid any catastrophes, on the brighter side, intelligent clusters of AH empowered humans would work together as one team to create a newer, bolder tomorrow.

Aan S Chauhan, Global Chief Technology Officer, Cognizant

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