The Wilson Quarterly

The future has arrived and it's your first day at your new job. You step across the threshold sporting a nervous smile and harboring visions of virtual handshakes and brain-computer interfaces. After all, this is one of those newfangled, modern offices that science-fiction writers have been dreaming up for ages. Then you bump up against something with a thud. No, it's not one of the ubiquitous glass walls, but the harsh reality of an office that, at first glance, doesn't appear much different from what you're accustomed to. Your new colleagues shuffle between meetings clutching phones and laptops. A kitchenette stocked with stale donuts lurks in the background. And, by the way, you were fifteen minutes late because the commute is still hell.

So where is the fabled "office of the future"? After all, many of us have only ever fantasized about the ways in which technology – and especially artificial intelligence – might transform our working lives for the better. In fact, the AI-enabled office will usher in far more than next-generation desk supplies. It's only over subsequent weeks that you come to appreciate how the office of the future feels, operates, and yes, senses. It also slowly dawns on you that work itself has changed and that what it means to be a worker has undergone a similar retrofit.

With AI already deployed in everything from the fight against ISIS to the hunt for exoplanets and your cat's Alexa-enabled Friskies order, its application to the office should come as no surprise. As workers pretty much everywhere can attest, today's office has issues: It can't intuitively crack a window when your officemate decides to microwave leftover catfish. It seems to willfully disregard your noise, temperature, light, and workflow preferences. And it certainly doesn't tell its designers – or your manager – what you are really thinking as you plop down in your annoyingly stiff chair to sip your morning cup of mud.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "These seem like trivial issues that can be worked out simply by chatting with another human being, so why do we even need AI in my office?" If so, read on. In your lifetime, companies and workers will channel AI to unlock new value – and immense competitive advantage.

Baby Steps to Office Nirvana

Oh, the joys of office life!

Courtesy of Shutterstock/Stock-Asso

From the perspective of your fluorescently-lit cubicle, the AI-enabled office probably seems light-years away. After all, simple tasks like booking a conference room or arranging a meeting over e-mail remain major pain points in an office-dweller's existence. But with American workers spending, on average, a scant 44 percent of their time on "primary duties," you better bet that bosses everywhere are plotting how AI can eliminate the hours you whittle away on routine tasks.

In fact, some of those AI fixes are already at work, in both senses of the phrase. If it hasn't happened already, your first encounter with AI in the office could go something like this: When Dave from the Cincinnati office e-mails to set up a meeting, an AI tool such as Workloud adds it to your calendar without your having to lift a finger. Meanwhile, Alexa for Business automatically books you a conference room. All the while, Vervoe helps HR crunch through applicants angling to work on the fascinating project that you and Dave are about to dream up. Since finite resources such as talent and motivation are sapped by administrative tasks, these infant-AI tools provide an invaluable service, liberating employees to engage in more creative work. However, as groundbreaking as these AI-enabled applications may seem, they are small fry in an ever-expanding world.

While it has grossly overpromised and under-delivered since its birth in a Dartmouth College basement in 1956, AI has started to come of age. Simply put, AI technologies use massive amounts of data to fuel processes such as machine learning, which enable programs to iterate and make informed decisions. In the office of today, you probably already actively contribute data by completing everyday tasks – think computer keystrokes and, for a few, voice commands. Going forward, data will increasingly be used to bridge the gap between the two halves of our world – physical and digital.

To understand AI's real transformative power, consider how it is revolutionizing the very notion of office design. Take the already dated "innovation" of the open-plan office, in which 70 percent of American workers toil. Stocked with neat rows of computers, a Ping-Pong table (if you're lucky), and bottomless coffee, its raison d'être is to engender a free-flowing idea zone (that will ultimately boost the bottom line). But research shows that the open-plan office actually reduces worker productivity by 15-to-28 percent. Furthermore, the design is wholly unsuited to the 30-to-40 percent of workers who are introverts and tend to be most productive when removed from the always-on bull pen.

So, how did we end up creating – and scaling – a less than ideal office ecosystem that accomplishes the exact opposite of what its designers set out to do? It comes down to the constraints that designers (and all humans) face when taking on such complex projects. Even working collaboratively and utilizing the most advanced software, designers are limited in the amount and quality of input they can gather through one-on-one interviews or focus groups. And no matter how hard they try, designers are not immune to the same sorts of biases and tendency to groupthink that afflict the rest of us. AI to the rescue!

In the office, IoT sensors will passively gather data on the seconds you spend chatting with Melissa in accounting, the soil humidity of your beloved fern, and the precise route you take from desk to bathroom.

In the future, you will, by default, be opted in to a dazzling array of sensors enabled through the "Internet of Things (IoT)," the term used to refer to the swarm of devices that translate your preferences and actions into digital, AI-ready bits and bytes. (Think beyond the dumbphone in your pocket to things like IoT-enabled insoles and algorithm-crunching washing machines.) In the office, IoT sensors will passively gather data on the seconds you spend chatting with Melissa in accounting, the soil humidity of your beloved fern, and the precise route you take from desk to bathroom. With IoT honing in on all aspects of the human experience in real time and synching it to the cloud, your office AI will have the mountain of data it needs to create the autonomous workplace of the future. (And if your office can't – or won't – institute these technologies, be prepared to contribute data in other settings. Companies such as Google's Sidewalk Labs have already built business models that depend on the aggregation of data in public spaces.)

The process, dubbed "generative design," uses AI to run millions of permutations to reveal the layout that best fits the goals and constraints for its intended use; IoT data gathered from editors in a newsroom results in a vastly different design than an office built for a legion of coders. Generative design has already been applied to "optimize" single products such as engine blocks and even airplanes. The trailblazing workplace example comes via the architecture and engineering firm Autodesk, which polled 250 of its workers on everything from workflow to light preferences before breaking ground on a 16,000-square-foot office in Toronto. AI-enabled analysis resulted in 10,000 designs that were whittled down by humans to create "neighborhoods" that embody the wants and needs of staff – "a kind of co-design between human and computer that could not be possible by human alone or computer alone," as Autodesk Research's David Benjamin puts it.

Leveraging AI, Autodesk has left those rows of cubicles in the dust.

And generative design isn't just some pie-in-the-sky undertaking for design gurus. Informed by this technology, Bank of America instituted overlapping breaks for call center workers, resulting in a not-so-shabby 23 percent increase in performance. Expect a lot more where that came from as employers are given AI tools to squeeze even more productivity out of workers.

Human AI Resources

If generative design will revolutionize the physical layout of your office, what behind-the-scenes changes are in store? In fact, the tentacles of office AI will reach far beyond your future workspace, influencing everything from power dynamics and professional development to how you connect with company culture. Take, for example, AI's ability to guide – and adapt to – workers' preferences for noise, layout, and workflow. The technology might eventually map your ideal work environment so well that it foresees problems – such as your aversion to casual gossip or the condescending manner in which Jason from external relations speaks to you (it's a long story, so don't ask). Eventually, AI could proactively introduce "solutions," such as suggesting an office setup that minimizes your interaction time with lovely Jason. Steered away from roadblocks to office harmony, you'll finally be able to devote more time to your own projects and professional growth.

AI will also upend the way you perform tasks, and may even end up furnishing what today seem like superpowers: While real-life reporters can't be replaced, AI is already being used to comb through thousands of documents and Twitter feeds to cobble together skeleton stories. Reuters correspondents covering the 2017 Mandalay Bay shooting in Las Vegas used AI to crowd-source and fact-check the latest information, giving them an "eight-to-sixty-minute head start" on the competition.

Just as Amazon now uses data to tee up the products you'll buy next, AI will learn to focus on the characteristics that companies and managers want from workers.

Wielding its vast trove of data, AI will also inevitably play a critical role in monitoring your performance. By shifting the time-honored managerial burden of evaluation to AI, managers spend less time ranking employees through cumbersome surveys and interviews, pummeling the performance review as we know it into obsolescence. This will allow workers to focus on what they need to do next (rather than reflecting on what they've done in the past), whether it be learning new systems or developing client relationships. And, just as Amazon now uses data to tee up the products you'll buy next, AI will learn to focus on the characteristics that companies and managers want from workers.

If and when it is implemented, AI evaluation will also transform the basic nature of the worker-employer relationship. Richard Tyson, the connected places strategy director at Gensler, the world's largest architecture firm, says AI will help shift the role of managers "from oversight to recruiter, trainer, or coach." This, in turn, could lead to the erosion of traditional office hierarchies, he argues. Workers would instead molt into high-performance athletes that demand creative freedom to work – and achieve results – in partnership with specific teams or people rather than a company or supervisor.

Could this become a thing of the past?

Courtesy of Shutterstock/vinnstock

This shift unlocks opportunities that would ultimately benefit workers, Tyson says. With your performance directly tied to your ability to leverage AI, you'll demand and receive access to the latest and greatest AI tools as part of your benefits package. This, in turn, will birth new professions dedicated to helping you make the most of the guidance that AI offers. Let's all take a minute to welcome our new "chief workforce performance officer" or "AI optimization specialist."

More broadly, the currency on which the economy of the future runs – knowledge workers – will gravitate to companies that demonstrate a knack for integrating AI. "Finding, attracting, and retaining high-performing talent will depend on investments in intelligence in the workplace," says Tyson. In the end, companies will engage in a race to implement AI across all facets of their operations, not only to give them an advantage over competitors, but to attract workers who are eager to stretch their (very human) abilities.

Tomorrow's World of Work

Of course, stepping back from the rubicon of the AI-enabled office, the laundry list of ethical conundrums and practical complications quickly lengthens. Your mind is probably bubbling with counterarguments for why the changes detailed above should never come to pass: Will it really benefit you or your company if AI forecasts and preempts your tiff with Jason? Isn't having it out with colleagues on a semi-regular basis a key part of professional and personal growth? Who (or what) will adjudicate your dispute with your office AI after it negatively assesses your performance? And how the hell do you opt out of this stuff? (Wait, is there even an opt-out button?) These are all questions that will no doubt be hotly debated in the coming years. However, grappling with these issues does not obfuscate the reality of AI's arrival in an office park near you (albeit incrementally, meaning you may never have an "aha" moment when you realize it has gone mainstream).

New problems generated by AI should give us pause, and then hope, for future job growth and prosperity. Resolving them will generate new business opportunities and industries: consultancies will hire armies of facilitators to help frontline workers adjust to AI technologies; big law will cultivate first-year associates to help workers battle the AI performance review; and think-tankers will be busier than ever untangling what the latest and greatest AI technologies mean for life as we know it. Whoever provides answers to these questions, while greasing our transition to the office of tomorrow, is not only going to make boatloads of whatever the successor to bitcoin is; they will also make sure we feel at home in the workplace of 2100.

As with every major industrial or technological transition, splitting the difference between doomsday scenarios and overly optimistic folly will be the key task.

Casting our gaze beyond the AI-updated office, another set of larger, more existential questions loom: Who – or what – will the AI office ultimately benefit? Will the AI office and AI factory guarantee the mass-unemployment of low-skilled workers, as some warn? What does this all mean for my retirement savings, not to mention my unborn children? How will AI-pioneering nation states such as the United States and China leverage workplace AI to compete for geopolitical sway? Again, the coming years will see much debate, and probably plenty of controversy. There is indeed growing consensus that AI will upend entire industries, transforming employment, education, training, trade, and the practice of international relations itself. Some of this has already begun, and countries the world over are starting to recognize the promise and pitfalls of AI – before their very eyes. On May 10, the White House formed a Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence that will consider, among other things, how to prepare for potential job displacement.

Still, it is impossible to precisely forecast how AI will transform each of these domains in the long term. That's why the simple office parable is so valuable. It helps us make sense of the larger, and even more uncertain, potentialities appearing on the horizon. As with every major industrial or technological transition, splitting the difference between doomsday scenarios and overly optimistic folly will be the key task. And so, we should continue to discuss and consider with open eyes at the same time as we experiment with AI technologies in the office. It will likely be possible to walk and wear a brain-computer interface at the same time.

And so, as you pack your messenger bag at the end of your first day in the new office, your thoughts drift back to the old-school cubicle that was your second home back in 2018. But there is little time for nostalgia. With your metamorphosis from worker to high-performance work-athlete complete, all you are really concerned with is how you can use your AI-updated office to keep your head above water. After all, that AI-optimized vacation is just around the corner.

***

Jeffrey Brown (@jeffreybrown438) manages projects on the future of work and artificial intelligence at the Bertelsmann Foundation. His research focuses on the implications of AI on geopolitics and labor, particularly in regard to the United States and the European Union.

Cover photo: A corner of Autodesk's new Toronto office (photo by Ben Rahn, A Frame Inc.)

Read Next

While We Remain