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How the relationship between humans and computers has evolved

In his classic 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick predicted a future where an omnipresent machine — in this case, HAL — could assume the role of colleague or crew member, capable of speech recognition, natural language processing, interpreting emotional behaviors and automated reasoning, among other things. And he wasn’t far off.

The way in which humans interact with computers has come a long way in the last 50 years. We used to dial phones. Now we talk to them — along with our cars and refrigerators — as if they were old friends. They know who we are, what we like and do things for us that make life easier.

And things are just getting started. The number of voice assistants in use is projected to increase from 3.25 billion in 2019 to around 8 billion by 2023. And as Kubrick predicted, they will be coming to a workplace near you soon.

The generation of individuals currently entering the job market have grown up with smartphones and voice assistants. They don’t want to sit down in front of a PC or type on a laptop or tablet. And they don’t want to do tactical, meaningless work. They expect to be able to ask their devices to perform mundane work that frustrates them. Or — even better — just do it without being asked.

So what will the workplace of the future look like? I recently sat down with my colleague James Bulpin, a technology leader, innovation champion and demo wizard in workspace productivity, virtual assistants and IoT spaces at Citrix. He is in many ways a futurist like Kubrick. In this Q&A, we discuss how the relationship between humans and computers has evolved, and how it will continue to change in the furture.

Steve Wilson: James, how has our relationship with computers changed over the years?

James Bulpin: In the early days of computing, humans served the computer by feeding it data through mechanisms such as punch cards to help keep it running. Today, the computer has evolved into more of a toolbox, accessible via the two-dimensional interface of the screen, supporting us in what we need to do. And it’s on course to become a more pervasive form of intelligence that can surface through all digital platforms and computer systems, helping individuals to complete their tasks more easily and efficiently.

Wilson: How so?

Bulpin: Well, the capabilities of smart speakers such as Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod and Google Home, for instance, are already evolving from simple voice commands to supporting ecosystems of applications and interactions within the home. We have some way to go before we see voice and AI widely used as a component in systems for business and workflow, but there are already signs of the incoming change, and the impact this will have on the future of work. The computer is shifting from a dumb tool into a colleague or personal assistant, in the human sense of the term.

Wilson: And how will this impact our interactions?

Bulpin: The computer has its own way of looking at the world, helping us as humans to be successful. In the future workplace, we may see computers learning from us and eventually taking on repetitive monotonous tasks, freeing us up to be more productive in our cognitive work. We may also see the voice assistant knowing best in some scenarios and making recommendations or suggestions to us, calculating insights around our performance, advising us on how to prioritize our workload and even suggesting when we should take a break.

Wilson: So they will do our work for us. Is the fear that computers will ultimately replace humans legitimate?

Bulpin: To briefly revisit the analogy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, those familiar with the film will know that the computer HAL eventually takes control, putting his view of what was best for the mission ahead of what was best for his human crewmates. The scenario of a computer becoming too dominant a player is of obvious concern. However, our world is shaped toward human cognition, and AI is still programmed by humans. It can only advance as fast as we choose. HAL only took control because a human had programmed him to do so.

In the future, we are likely to see a closer bond forged between humans and computers, which could dramatically impact the way we work, and for the better. But they won’t ever replace us entirely.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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