- The Augmented Human is the title of a new report from MYOB that examines how the body and brain are becoming integrated with mechanical and digital technology to create “the ultimate trans-human society”
- It’s a world that will see humans able to seamlessly — inside their heads — take advantage of everything the technological realm has to offer, from Wikipedia to x-ray vision, from downloadable language packs to an app store for the brain
- That trans-human society is creating threats, but also amazing opportunities for business and the workplace
By Ben Power
It’s the not-too-distant future. You’re an accountant. A client sits in front of you discussing a problem.
They’re considering a major business expansion and want your feedback. The talk turns to equipment values. Without blinking, you skilfully weave into the conversation the latest equipment price trends, a list of the best suppliers, and a deep analysis of the outlook for equipment prices.
But where did you access all that information in real time?
According to one vision of the future, a chip would have been inserted into your brain that has given you real-time access — via a screen-like interface that appears before your eyes — to vast amounts of data and analysis, in this case on equipment.
You have become an “augmented human”.
Mind and machine
The Augmented Human is the title of a new report from MYOB that examines how the body and brain are becoming integrated with mechanical and digital technology to create “the ultimate trans-human society”.
It’s a world that will see humans able to seamlessly — inside their heads — take advantage of everything the technological realm has to offer, from Wikipedia to x-ray vision, from downloadable language packs to an app store for the brain.
That trans-human society is creating threats, but also amazing opportunities for business and the workplace. While some elements may seem sci-fi, in areas such as medicine, the augmented human is already a reality, and business leaders need to understand the trend and begin preparing their business.
Specifically, they need to create data-driven organisations so they have access to the information and insights that will underpin this new wave of technology.
“Staying in business is hard,” says MYOB Chief Technology Officer Simon Raik-Allen, explaining why MYOB created the report.
“You want to keep your pulse on the future. It’s important to keep track of what’s happening.
“We’re always looking at what’s happening in the future and staying a few steps ahead of the customers,” he adds. “What is coming down the pipeline that will affect business? What should you, as a business, be applying and experimenting with?”
Better, stronger, smarter
For some time now people have been augmenting the human body. The pacemaker is a prime example. The pacemaker is a small device that is placed in the chest or abdomen to help control abnormal heart rhythms. We’ve also begun installing things like artificial hips, as well as chemicals and hormones to prevent illness and injury and to boost performance.
But we’re about to enter a new phase of augmentation that incorporates advances in digital technology, including artificial intelligence.
MYOB says we are creating computers that are “not only smarter, but able to think like humans — only at exponentially faster speeds and with instantaneous access to a near limitless source of information”.
That artificial intelligence will be coupled with a deeper understanding of the human body, both physical and chemical, and with greater awareness of how the brain works.
MYOB predicts a merger of flesh and technology that could be the “next evolutionary stage of humanity”.
One of the major developments in this new stage is embedding technology inside humans.
We’ve already seen the trend of wearable devices, such as fitness trackers, smart watches and Google Glass. Those devices were the first stage in a new phase of human augmentations. But those devices will soon become “embeddable” — tiny devices placed in our bodies.
Those embeddables could perform a number of tasks: track biometric information, direct the release of chemicals or the use of other enhancements, and overlay our existing vision with a wide range of real-time data or different visual spectrums, such as infrared.
According to MYOB, the embeddables will be connected to our own personal artificial intelligence, which, through an interface, will offer all the services we get from smart devices.
The impact of the augmented human on business will be profound, with implications for every operation including marketing, finance and human relations.
MYOB presents one compelling scenario, the “augmented shopkeeper”, to illustrate how business will change. The shopkeeper can gain real time, penetrating insights into customers’ needs and desires, then access data instantly to ensure those needs can be met.
The perceived benefits gained [By microchipping humans] would be offset by the breach of privacy and the ability to use the information indiscriminately.
A customer might enter the store and the shopkeeper “feels” their presence through a small nerve activated on the back of their neck or hand. When the customer browses, the shopkeeper, in a retina display, can see what the customer is viewing.
The shopkeeper has real time access to artificial intelligence, an “enhanced version of our own brain and personality”, according to MYOB, and equivalent to a personal digital assistant available in the cloud.
When the shopkeeper speaks with the customer, that artificial intelligence is listening. In turn it might speak with the supplier’s artificial intelligence which gives feedback on sizes, colours, order status and delivery schedules.
The customer, too, is an augmented human. They use their own retinal camera and they might send an image of the product to their own artificial intelligence, which returns images of what it will look like in their home in the various colours available.
Raik-Allen says enhanced perception and artificial intelligence will be a fertile ground for business opportunity.
Marketers could deliver messages directly to people in images and information, and as we shop introduce sensory changes — light, sound and smell — based on personal preferences.
The augmented human could boost performance through control of chemicals and hormones in our bodies. Embedded chemical pods, controlled by a neural interface, could release chemicals into our bodies to perform different tasks. You might, for example, release stimulants and cut dopamine ahead of a big meeting so you’re at peak awareness.
The augmented human will also change the nature of work, particularly routine work, and allow more effective training, sharing of knowledge and access to information.
“Neural implants, visual links and even projected emotions will enable businesspeople to communicate more efficiently and effectively,” MYOB says.
There are of course risks with the development of the augmented human and having more technology in our bodies. Could someone steal our thoughts? Could someone hack into your embedded artificial intelligence and change your behaviour so you risk your life?
MYOB recognises these risks, but is confident that humans will evolve new rules and norms.
Raik-Allen says we are already “getting pretty good with technology from a security point of view”. He cites aeroplanes and space shuttles that have “risk of life” as examples where technology risk is being well managed.
Feed the robot
But while there are opportunities, we aren’t there yet. So how do businesses prepare now for the world of the augmented human in the future?
The answer is data.
Raik-Allen says that data will underpin all the amazing technological advancements. Artificial intelligence “eats data for breakfast”, he says.
“You need to be able to feed it data.”
So to prepare, businesses need to become data-focused operations. That means digitising your business and creating online systems, which will produce data on all elements of a business, such as work flows, how long customers take to pay, and the optimal interactions that lead to payments.
“There are so many opportunities for businesses to streamline how they operate,” Raik-Allen says. “The problem is most of the information needed to determine those opportunities isn’t captured.”
Raik-Allen says MYOB itself, in preparation for a wave of future changes such as the augmented human, is focused on becoming a data-led company. He says data helps the company recognise exactly which new features they need to build for customers.
“We visit hundreds of accountants and watch how they work and then determine from that exactly the feature set that will help save the most time or optimize the most expensive interactions.
“But with businesses being so diverse, it’s never going to be one size fits all. So that’s where the artificial intelligence is going to come into it: to tailor specific solutions for each business — based on its own data.”
Much of the outlook for the augmented human is based on speculation and conjecture. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like yet,” Raik-Allen says.
That includes what an “augmented accountant” might look like.
“Will technology be embedded in the eyes and ears and brains of accountants? We don’t know.”
What we do know is that change is inevitable and businesses need to adapt.
Raik-Allen says accountants have already adapted to change effectively through their adoption of cloud services.
“Accountants that use the cloud are more effective, have a better sales pipeline, give more timely advice and have less time on the road between customers,” he says. “They’re all things that give you an advantage.”
The augmented human might seem fantasy, but given the rapid pace of technological change, there is an element of inevitability.
“It’s the future of business,” Raik-Allen says. “I want to give people a leg up in terms of being ahead of the curve.”
Ben Power is a freelance writer and communications consultant.
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.