Bionic staff

It may
sound like the plot of a sci-fi movie, but artificial intelligence may soon
become a reality. So what impact will these sophisticated computers have on the
workplace? Jane Lewis reports

What
impact will the onslaught of artificial intelligence have on company workers as
individuals? Some of the futurist sketches outlined by the think-tanks indicate
that life will be challenging for our children, to say the least – particularly
when you consider likely developments in associated fields like
bio-engineering.

The
possibility of a bionic worker arriving at a desk near yours within the next
half-century is not entirely grounded in the realms of science fiction.

Here’s
how it might happen. According to the World Futures Society, in the next decade
we will see a higher incidence of bionic limbs, hearts and other organs, as
well as the breakthrough of artificial blood. By 2030, technology may have
evolved to a point where it is possible to link the human brain to computers,
giving rise to Homo Cyberneticus.

Immortality

At
around the same time, scientists will come up with the first
biologically-optimised human. According to one commentator, "It will be a
short step to combine the two into one entity" – Homo Hybridus –
"with the body of an Olympic athlete and a brain the size of the
planet."

Over
time this new form may "converge" with the machine-world, and take
advantage of routine ongoing back-up and upgrading. In such a scenario, the
ancient human goal of immortality isn’t that far off.

Man
vs machine

So
much for the big picture. But what of the short term? According to some
futurologists, companies may be forced to take some fairly heavy-handed
measures to achieve the ideal working balance between human intellect and
machine brain-power. One route they may take, according to Professor Stan
Davies of Harvard Business School, is to run their internal knowledge base
along ruthlessly pragmatic lines – not just talking about human
"capital", but treating employees that way too.

Human
stockmarket

He
predicts a growing efficiency in the "market for people" – a future
scenario where companies will make direct investments in their best human
talent, monitoring their brain-power and averaging its future worth in the
marketplace. Human skills may eventually be traded on financial markets as
easily as any other commodity. If you can trade pork bellies, coffee and even,
these days, Kyoto-devised pollution credits, you can certainly put a price on
the up-and-coming whiz in the marketing department.

Decisions
on whether a staff member is retained or replaced, Davies suggests, are likely
to be based on how that individual’s "shares" are performing on the
"human stockmarket".

Recruitment
traders

You
can already see the embryonic signs of this on some of the online recruitment
sites that have sprung up in recent years – sites whose main business models
owe more to online goods traders like eBay than they do to any traditional
recruiter. Skills brought to these markets are priced just as rigorously as any
contract, and it is only a matter of time before some kind of formal system of
measurement emerges to gauge precisely how much you should be worth if you’ve
got three change management case-histories and PhD in linguistics under your
belt.

Emotional
effects

It
is easy to spot the flaw. Humans are not just intellectual beings, but
emotional and social ones too – and surveys continue to suggest that these
factors play more of a decisive role in business decisions and appointments
than many scientifically-run companies would like to admit. And how do you put
a price on someone who is brilliant at deal-making, say, but whose tantrums are
an absolute liability?

As
a final caveat, remember that the movements of financial markets can be every
bit as erratic and irrational as any sales executive on acid. Would you really
want to commit your employment strategy to that?

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