Enhanced Employees: The Singular Office of 2020
As early as 1959, Peter Drucker described a growing division of the workforce as “knowledge workers,” those employees who work mainly with information or develop and use knowledge in the workplace. In North America, these workers now outnumber their counterparts 4 to 1, according to a recent study.
At the same time, with the help of the Internet, many workers have moved into the “conceptual” realm in which creativity is valued over rote memorization, a trend which shows no sign of slowing down. According to Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the Future (2006), the conceptual age will require workers who can make meaning out of seemingly meaningless data and work with complexity and ambiguity. In other words, the “right-brained” people like graphic artists, writers and systems thinkers will be more in demand than accountants and lawyers.
How fast are we approaching a majority-conceptual workforce? Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist called “a visionary thinker” by Bill Gates, has predicted that by 2023 $1000 worth of computation will equal one human brain, and all human brains by 2050. This incredible amount of cheap computing would allow humans to reach science’s holy grail — “singularity”, a point in which humans and computers are intertwined and interchangeable, allowing humans to live healthy lives beyond 100 years and think millions of times faster than today.
It sounds like a science fiction novel, but don’t judge too quickly. Anyone who follows technology is familiar with Moore’s Law, in which the price of new technology halves every 18 months. Kurzweil’s TED talk explains in depth how the law mirrors biological evolution in the technological world, allowing us to predict timelines of computational improvement.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
If Kurzweil is right, what will the workplace look like in a decade or two? What new challenges, tensions and dynamics will arise?
The Futurist, a magazine exploring how social, technological and economic developments are shaping the future, predicts that leaders will bear the brunt of the transition from our current workplaces to mixed offices of “Norms” and ESIs—Enhanced Singular Individuals. ESIs could look like Sharon, a six-foot-tall woman with perfect musculature and an IQ in the 400s, or Kevin, glowing with health and charisma from the nanobots in his bloodstream that pump oxygen to his brain and monitor his vitamin and enzyme levels, instantly producing whatever he needs. But all ESIs will have one thing in common—the ability to take complex data and process it millions of times faster than a normal human.
Managers will have to resolve conflicts between the two groups, promote cohesion and communication, and adapt unique solutions to motivate everyone. Non-ESI l workers will have to play up qualities other than their intelligence in order to maintain their relevance. While ESIs will likely view Norms as inferior, if non-enhanced leaders demonstrate the importance of feeling, intuition and sociability in the workplace, Norms and ESIs may work side by side as complements. Perhaps Norms will provide unique solutions coming from their rich emotional experiences and pasts, showing that innovation is not reducible to decision-trees and complex analysis.
This new “mixed workforce is likely to create even more complex diversity issues beyond the ones we continue to wrestle with today among the non-enhanced workers. Just what we need…more complexity!