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The age of the tech-enhanced human

SANGEET PAUL CHOUDARY CHITRA NARAYANAN | Updated on January 12, 2018 Published on January 10, 2017

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2017 will see the rise of assistance, augmentation and automation. It will bring in a big shift impacting economies

Typically, the action at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas is all about futuristic consumer durable products — smart television sets, voice-controlled fridges, and so on.

This year, however, the scene stealers at the CES were digital assistants powered by artificial intelligence.

Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana were joined by Baidu’s Little Fish, LG’s Hub Robot and Mattel’s Aristotle among a host of other virtual Jeeves creating a deafening buzz.

Amazon which had been powering ahead all through 2016 with its insanely skilled virtual assistant Alexa reportedly closed last year with 45,000 robots in its fulfilment centres. That was a 50 per cent increase in its robot headcount over a year before, signalling the rapid pace at which automation is moving at the e-commerce giant.

Meanwhile IBM Watson’s augmented intelligence has been quietly making inroads into hospitals and financial firms helping doctors and bankers make sense of data to arrive at diagnoses and spot opportunities and risks.

These developments clearly foretell a significant shift in 2017, a year we predict will be the coming of age of the tech-enhanced human. It’s usually very difficult to predict a profound new trend in a one-year time frame.

But this promises to be a fundamental shift with long-term implications for organisations, individuals and economies.

Tech enhancement should be seen through a framework of three ‘A’s — assistance, augmentation and automation — forces that have been quietly gaining momentum over the last couple of years and which we expect to go mainstream this year.

The three ‘A’s

From the basic PDAs of yore to the sophisticated virtual assistants of today, automated software applications or platforms that assist human users with search and retrieval related intelligence are getting better. And as their capabilities get enhanced, usage will spike. Research organisation Tractica forecasts that there will be 1.8 billion consumer users of virtual assistants worldwide by 2021 and 843 million enterprise users.

But if you look at Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, China’s LingLong Ding Dong, they work alongside our core capabilities — they complement our own skills easing our tasks quietly.

Augmentation, on the other hand, enhances our core capabilities by providing specifically contextual support that is required to do a task. The way doctors are working with IBM Watson is a great example of augmentation. IBM Watson with its deep cognitive computing skills assimilates vast amounts of patient information and interprets them reducing time for doctors to make their diagnoses.

Similarly, DAQRI's Smart Helmet can recognise machine parts, read gauges, and could change the way workers process information and get work done. Mitsubishi Electric is using smart glasses to provide air-conditioner service technicians with a three-dimensional overlay that shows them the components of the company’s most popular residential air conditioner.

The third A — automation — takes it all a step further, removing the need for human effort. Automation is not complementary to human skills but is a substitute bringing in agility to tasks, a pre-requisite in today’s world. But automation need not necessarily always mean job losses, especially in areas where significant judgement calls are needed. A classic example is self-driving cars.

Economic impact

Tech enhancement will have significant economic impact for organisations, nations and individuals as the three As democratise productivity gains.

The last great example of democratised productivity gains is probably the washing machine which freed up women from household chores allowing more of them to enter the workforce. Similarly, the three As are going to lead to significant societal impact as technology will propel humans up the skills ladder.

As the three As gain traction, we may see a surplus of entrepreneurial productive capacity being created and economies that encourage these will accelerate faster. The labour cost advantage that emerging economies were banking on will slowly vanish. Already, we are at the fag end of the services arbitrage that the first phase of globalisation enabled.

The big losers may well be economies such as India, Vietnam and Philippines that relied on this too much. China, very astutely, has shifted from a manufacturing export-driven economy to one satisfying internal consumer demand and is increasingly adopting the three As.

Different strokes

It’s fascinating to see the different approaches to tech enhancement that industries are taking. In retail, consumer decisions are becoming more assisted. Supply chains that bring products to us, on the other hand, are becoming more augmented.

In healthcare, again, at the patient end there is assistance in the form of chatbots and virtual platforms, while at the provider end there is augmentation (diagnosis) as well as automation (surgery).

Marketing will get more automated but high end selling — for example, investment products - will see more augmentation as humans team up with robot advisors.

In some jobs, we will see automation, while in others augmentation. The reasoning is complex and involves the degree to which a job will rely on cognitive decision making versus data-driven models, and the degree to which all inputs can be digitised. Augmentation will not lead to job losses while automation might.

In general, assistance will help consumers make better consumption decisions and navigate an increasingly smarter environment. Augmentation, wherever it comes in, will likely increase the labour pool, leading to a net positive effect on job creation as it will reduce the skills required to take on the work.

A classic example of this is how GPS technology has allowed anyone to become a driver and led to platforms such as Uber. We are going to see future examples in investment advisory.

This is but the start of the tech-enhancement era. The next big operating system may well be the human body. With USB drives installed in finger tips, surgically modelled third ears that are Wi-Fi enabled, body hackers are already attempting to create an alternate anatomy. Are we ready for that reality?

Paul Choudary is the founder of Platformation Labs. Narayanan is an editorial consultant with BusinessLine. This column looks at how digital economy is shaping the way we work and live

Published on January 10, 2017
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