Hi-tech augmentation transforms people and businesses alike. We met experts in the field to find out if then, the line between fiction and reality is fast blurring. The answer is a resounding yes!
When you hear the term “augmented humans,” you may think of superhuman cyborgs – or, say, sci-fi hackers with microchips for brains. But if you started your day by reaching for your glasses from the nightstand, congratulations – you’re augmented, too. So was, for example, the first Neanderthal who picked up a rock and faced off a cave bear. But what does augmentation mean for the working life now and in the years to come?
Basically, there are two types of augmentation, physical and mental, which are becoming increasingly entwined. As the Internet of Things ramps up, more and more devices can “talk” to each other – and, in the future, they will talk to you and you to them. In fact, Elon Musk’s new company Neuralink concerns itself with a generalised brain-machine interface that would allow humans and computers to inter-operate.
Consulting agency Deloitte argues that as artificial intelligence (AI) systems, robotics, and cognitive tools grow in sophistication, almost every job is being reinvented – thus creating what many call the “augmented workforce.” Deloitte maintains that organisations must now reconsider how they design jobs, organise work, and plan for future growth.
According to Deloitte’s 2017 survey, 41 percent of companies report that they have fully implemented or have made significant progress in adopting cognitive and AI technologies within their workforce. Another 34 percent of survey respondents are in the midst of pilot programs.
The ‘Achilles’ heel’ in this transition may be leadership: only 17 percent of global executives report they are ready to manage a workforce with people, robots, and AI working side-by-side.
Associate Professor Dr. Ville Kyrki, head of the Intelligent Robotics research group at Aalto University in Finland, comments that augmenting or enhancing humans is an “old hat” in a sense – just look at organ transplants, plastic surgery or prosthetics.
“Taking its cue from prosthetics, we are seeing a development towards exoskeletons which enable humans, for instance, to carry great loads,” Kyrki says, adding that warehouse or military applications already exist for exoskeletons.
“The problem right now is that they demand a lot of energy to operate.”
In addition to exoskeletons, various attempts to add new senses – or enhance existing ones – are being made. “This could mean being able to access a thermal camera or ultra sound via various apparatus.”
Presently, Augmented Reality (AR) is, arguably, the hottest topic in this arena.
Dr. Charles Woodward, Principal Scientist for Augmented Reality at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, says that augmented reality is expected to become part of our everyday lives in the coming years – via the use of data glasses that are getting lighter and easier to use as we speak. Woodward believes that in order to achieve a final breakthrough, augmented reality needs smart content and genuine value-added applications for consumers and professionals.
“Key enablers for this are 3D models of urban environments and buildings, big data and artificial intelligence,” he says.
But not everybody will be sporting data glasses, if they’re not felt to deliver something special. Smart content and proper context awareness are the big factors here:
“Data glasses should display useful information to the user even before he or she asks for it,” Woodward says, pointing out that the possibilities really are quite endless, ranging from Big Data applications and augmented social media to the ever-expanding world of games. Walking down a street, you could get tailored information about local services and events.
Talking about the timetable for AR revolution, Woodward says that if the applications are compelling enough, the early adaptors get hooked already by 2020, and a big breakthrough to the mainstream is to be expected around 2025.
According to Woodward, various industries can benefit from AR, too. He is of the opinion that in the marine sector, for instance, AR can boost ship construction with regards to areas such as welding.
“Also, if you think about training personnel in such issues as ship maintenance and safety, AR can be a very useful tool,” he says.
And just how far can augmentation go? For instance, some scholars – such as Yuval Noah Harari – argue that sooner or later we might have tiny nano-bots coursing through our veins, eliminating cancer and other kinds of disease altogether.
“These types of swarms of nano-bots in our system are still pretty much science fiction, but some science fiction does come true,” says Kyrki, adding that man went to the moon, eventually.
Woodward believes that within the next 50 years, data can be accessible via contact lenses or the like – and probably some sort of manipulation of brain signals will be commonplace, too.
“Still, we’re not all likely to become cyborgs by then,” he says.