Technology

A Post-Privacy Future for Workers


Three-and-a-half years ago, when TVs were heavy and bulky, Faith Popcorn foresaw that one day they would be flat and hang on walls. Today, her prediction has come true. Popcorn, professional futurist and founder of marketing consultancy BrainReserve in New York, doesn't pull her predictions out of thin air: She uses surveys of 5,000 consumers a year and of experts worldwide to reach her conclusions. Then she stirs in a quite a bit of imagination. And lately, her imagination has been cooking up some thoughts about how the workplace will change in the future.

Here's one: Popcorn believes employers will soon monitor everything from workers' stress to cholesterol levels -- and help them deal with such problems in order to increase productivity. Actually, researchers are already developing many of these technologies -- such as chairs equipped with sensors that measure your level of fatigue or attention.

Sound like Big Brother? In fact, personal privacy won't exist, says Popcorn, who talked about her vision of the future with BusinessWeek Online's Olga Kharif in early Apr. 1. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What will the office of the future look like?

A: The changes could start with the office remembering who sits where, what temperature they like, how soft they like the light to be. Also, there will be a lot of virtual reality, so you'll do almost no traveling but meet virtually: People you are meeting with actually appear in your office.

You'll also be able to watch your kids at the day-care center and be with them virtually. You'll be able to [virtually] travel to Paris, London, Rome, to pick out the cuisine you want for your dinner -- and it will be delivered to the lobby of your office before you go home.

Q: So it sounds like we'll be mixing personal and official business more?

A: Yes. We'll even have employees who will live on campus, supervising different tasks. That will be needed because we're becoming a global society in which people, in different parts of the world, can work on a project 24 hours a day. So your workplace will become more of a 24-hour kind of a space.

Q: A lot of people think the opposite will happen: That because of mobile communications, employees will work from home more.

A: Well, that will happen. The home will be the office. Or, you'll live right next to your office. And your employer will be taking care of all your personal and physical needs to increase your productivity. Your kids, your dinner, your clothing needs, your books, your movies -- would all be provided through your company.

For instance, your vital signs will be measured at work. If the measurements say you have high cholesterol and too much fat in your diet, you might get prescription menus. And the food would be delivered to your refrigerator at your home nearby.

Q: A lot of people don't want their companies to know what their cholesterol levels are. Wouldn't this raise a lot of privacy concerns?

A: I think privacy is an issue of the past -- there is no privacy. Already, when you order a book on Amazon.com (AMZN), you give up some of your privacy: Based on your choices, they provide you with other books that you might like to read. They follow your reading pattern. On eBay (EBAY), they compile lists of what you collect. So I think that privacy is a nice idea, but many people see it as something they've already lost.

Plus, I think people will get over such concerns when they see the tremendous convenience such technologies and services can offer.

Q: People already don't use half the functions in their software. Why would employees want all of this new technology you talk about?

A: The problem with technology today is, in many cases, you have to read through instructions to figure out how to use all the features. What we need is voice controls. For instance, you should be able to say, "Bring my car around in front." Or "I miss my mother. I want to see her."

Q: So the idea is to make the use of technology in the office a no-brainer. Besides voice commands, what else will be used to make that happen?

A: Sensors will measure your stress levels, your food needs levels, your psychological levels. They'll measure if some problem with your kids or your mate is affecting your productivity. All your needs will be measured and prescribed and fulfilled. The happier the worker, the higher the productivity -- and companies are starting to realize that already.

Q: A lot of people today say they won't have to go to the office because their jobs will be outsourced overseas. Looking into your crystal ball, what do you see happening with outsourcing?

A: Companies that outsource to India today go there to reduce costs. I think, eventually, there will be a standard wage per task worldwide, and you won't be able to find cheaper labor elsewhere. However, robotization of work is coming, and tasks that can be robotized will be.

Q: What do you think can be done by robots?

A: Almost anything. The robots' intelligence will be very high. Of course, that's a little further out because of ethical issues. But many of the key technologies needed to make wide use of robots possible are already here. Carnegie Mellon University has already developed the world's first robot receptionist, with its ability to detect motion and greet visitors. Others have developed robots that could complete simple tasks like fetching documents or coffee. And, of course, more robots will be used in manufacturing.

Q: What will people do?

A: Instead of manufacturing products, we'll be manufacturing ideas. We're going to survey and select people for jobs based on whether they have a good imagination and are creative and can come up with new ideas.


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