Is Technology Changing What It Means To Be Human?

Consultancy firm Gartner’s predictions for tech are always watched closely around this time of year. Their latest report on the trends to watch in 2020 and beyond was no different and was released recently to much fanfare.

Perhaps one of the most striking lines to emerge was that technology is changing what it means to be human. As Daryl Plummer of Gartner said: “As the digital age progresses, assumptions around the fixed nature of ‘what’ humans are is beginning to be challenged”.

Human augmentation and using artificial intelligence (AI) to increase accessibility at work are some of the Gartner strategic predictions for 2020 and beyond. The company cites examples like a restaurant in Japan that is exploring AI robotics technology to enable disabled employees to remotely pilot robotic waiters.

Gartner says that JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft and Ford are hosting virtual career fairs tailored to the needs of neurodiverse candidates. Enterprise Rent-A-Car also integrated Braille-reader technology into its reservations system for blind employees.

As part of this trend, they say organisations will extend their BYOD (bring your own device) policies with a ‘bring your own enhancement’ (BYOE) approach, to help create ‘augmented humans’ in the workforce.

Industries like the automotive sector and mining are currently using wearable tech to increase worker safety – for instance to monitor the environment in which they work for things like heat, water, and gas and to report back in real time. The travel and healthcare sectors are using wearables to increase productivity.

In terms of accessibility, it is predicted that by 2023, the number of people with disabilities employed will triple due to AI and emerging technologies reducing barriers. Changes will range from the cultural (such as removing the term ‘stand-up’ meeting) to the technical (such as adjusting legacy systems to be more accessible). The fact organisations that actively employ people with disabilities experience higher retention rates, an increase in employee productivity, and an increase in profitability will help drive this.

Interestingly, and on a different topic, Gartner says that by 2024, the World Health Organisation (WHO) will identify online shopping as an addictive disorder, as millions of people ‘abuse’ digital commerce and experience financial stress as a result.

With the increasing availability of consumer data, marketers are able to pinpoint exactly which consumer will buy their product and at what point in the buyer journey. As technology grows more sophisticated, marketers will be able to more accurately predict what consumers want, how to price products and where to position them; companies like Amazon have already made huge strides in this regard.

But Gartner points out that this can come at a price and that as consumers purchase more products they don’t need and can’t afford (like many probably did on Black Friday), businesses will need to take responsibility to warn potential buyers. There may also be increased pressure by governments and consumer groups for businesses to take responsibility for exploitative or irresponsible practices.

As always, predictions come with a heavy health warning. A look back at some of the forecasts made in past years shows that these predictions certainly don’t always come to pass or pan out as expected.

However, the direction of travel into next year and beyond does seem to be towards more AI and human augmentation.

And what is sure is that technology – as it always has – will continue to change what it means to be human. After all, humans didn’t used to be able to travel at 70 mph, to fly, or to see and talk in real-time with someone on the other side of the world.

:: Patrick McAliskey is co-founder of Novosco, which employs around 300 people, mostly in Belfast, and was recently acquired by Cancom, a multi-national IT company headquartered in Munich, with 3,800 employees worldwide.