Innovation

AI, VR, robots and you: the future of work is here

Technologies that were once the domain of science fiction keep on turning up in our daily lives. And while we might not yet have flying cars, food pills and instantaneous translators yet, they’re just around the corner. Other sci-fi staples are here already, like artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and robots.

The rise of the robots

It used to be we worried that we might not be able to prepare our children to do jobs that hadn’t yet been invented. Now that seems like a nice problem to have compared to the alternatives: no jobs for our children to do because the robots will be taking over.

Robots are already working farms, vacuuming, and looking after grandma. IBM’s Watson is already delivering better diagnoses than human doctors, and your child hasn’t even got into medical school yet.

But the world hasn’t run out of room for creative problem-solvers using technology to help them. As well as computers to help us in the office, we’re going to have 3D printers, small bots, and drones. They’re not going to take over our jobs, but they might lead to ‘cyborg jobs’. These are jobs that combine tech-savvy humans with computers and other technology. For we humans, they just might be the jobs of the future.

AI – solving problems, making phone calls

Google has lots of data and it does lots of research, so when it renames its research division ‘Google AI’, we should all pay attention. And while AI can now make simple phone calls, even Google’s Mustafa Suleyman, who co-founded an AI start-up bought by Google, says we’re decades away from AI replacing human workers on a large scale. But helping them is another matter.

AI is already here to help you solve problems that involve too much data for humans to grasp in a meaningful way. “Deep learning” AI systems will dive into the data to find patterns that we mortals cannot. The cloud is making this sort of AI accessible to organisations of all sizes.

Google, for instance, uses deep learning to make data centres more efficient by cutting down on the amount of energy used to cool servers, while legal firms use AI to assist with discovery, information management and even drafting simple contracts.

Choose your reality – augmented or virtual?

We all want virtual reality at work, say the surveys. But will we have to wait as long for VR (and its close cousin, augmented reality, or AR) as we’ve waited for our jetpacks? Maybe not.

The barriers around the price, content, and distribution of software tools are lower than ever before. Developers are sloshing around in funding, but the road to mass adoption is long enough that Gartner has put VR within its tech hype cycle.

As costs drop and developers become better at understanding how AR and VR can be used in the workplace, we’re starting to see practical applications, especially for industries as diverse as mining and medicine where fast, hands-free access to information in the field is highly valuable. Apple and Microsoft are building support for the technologies into their operating systems and when Facebook bought VR start-up Oculus, it wasn’t because they wanted to get into VR games.