The one thing I’ve heard more than anything throughout COVID-19 (other than that dreaded and over-used phrase, ‘the new normal’) is that lockdown is somehow making us more human.
Whether this is in relation to the fact that we are spending more time with our families, that we’ve experienced loss or that the pace of life has slowed down is up for debate. But what is certain is that every single person I’ve spoken to is certain that we as individuals will come out of this experience changed in some way.
It’s possible, of course, that these changes will only apply to our social lives — the way we treat others, the way we appreciate family and the way we care for ourselves. But I believe there will also be an impact on how we conduct ourselves in the world of work. There are physical changes we will need to make: distancing ourselves, paying more attention to hygiene, perhaps even working different shifts so fewer people occupy one space at a time.
We will also see more technology being developed to help us deal with the crisis and adapt to a future that includes social distancing, COVID-secure workspaces and remote working. However, I think the human experience will not be lost. In fact, I believe the more automated we get, the more we will use this to express and channel our humanity.
The AI revolution
In the past few years and even the last decade, we have seen an inevitable jump in the development and application of AI technologies. According to a McKinsey report from June 2019, experts predict that ‘AI could deliver a 22% boost to the UK economy by 2030’. This was, of course, pre-COVID, but the potential still remains.
AI, AR and VR and robotic technology is increasingly being used across industries, in customer service applications, retail and in various roles throughout engineering and manufacturing processes.
There is no reason why this won’t continue after lockdown. After all, with the way we work under close scrutiny, there will be a huge push to develop and implement technologies that will help us ‘get things done’ without compromising human safety in the process.
Yet amongst this surge in progress, I think there is a huge opportunity to align AI directly with the human touch. AI can be used to deal with initial enquiries, to speed up processes and triage actions into priority groups. But once it has done this, humans can step in to add a layer of personalisation and interaction that isn’t (and shouldn’t be, in my opinion) possible for an AI interface.
The mental health support texting service Shout enables users to text in asking for help or support. Initially, AI sends an automated response to users, and asks them to state their main issue or need for help. Analysis of this response allows the AI to triage the request and determine if specific or urgent support is needed (for example in the case of suicidal tendencies). Once the level of requirement is determined, an appropriate human counsellor is assigned the conversation.
Creating an environment fit for humanity
Another trend we are bound to see in the coming months is the rise of AI and the internet of things (IoT) in the built environment. As we start to return to work after lockdown, there is a lot of debate about the future of office and workspaces and whether remote working is the way forward.
By focusing on the development of smart buildings, we can actually create environments that maximise technology to increase human connections and enhance our experiences. With advances in AV, cybersecurity and connectivity, we can build networks that are perfect for conversation, collaboration and interaction. All of which are very human traits.
One thing we’ve learnt in this tumultuous time is that nothing is certain or definite and that we can use the technologies at our fingertips to create a better future. So let’s not talk about swapping human labour for AI or making jobs obsolete to pave the way for robotics.
Let’s pull together, realise the power of both our smart technologies and our human capabilities, and make something extraordinary. Now that is what I want from the new normal (SORRY!!).