Digital Transformation of the Human Worker

Much is made about how the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the development of robot technology will change the nature of work.

There is no doubt that these technology trends have significant momentum and will have a transformational impact across society, but on the other side of the ledger is the potential for humans to change themselves and their capabilities through technology.

Implants Becoming Common

Already, RFID chip implants are, as they say, “a thing.”

They have allowed the “user” – or “host” – to perform relatively simple functions such as swipe their travel card on the train or bus, and to open security doors at the workplace. So far, it is only a small advance on microchipping pets for identification purposes.

But the innovation, which is also offered by the Swedish company BioHax, opens up some intriguing and wide-ranging possibilities.

In Sweden, a new office block set the pace in 2016 when it offered workers microchip implants to give them access to the building and various services, such as the photocopier.

BioHax has also extended the technology to train commuters, and the number of people in Sweden with implanted travel cards has reached 3,000, according to the BBC.

Train operator SJ Rail says its conductors are scanning the chips with a smartphone to confirm the passengers have paid.

The Swedish lead has been followed up in the US, where a Wisconsin company called Three Square Market last year offered implants to employees. Not only could they get building access, but could buy Kit Kats and other confectionery from the vending machine just by waving their hands.

Around 50 of the 80 employees at Three Square Market had the USD 300 implants inserted at a special party last year, and according to the company’s chief executive Todd Westy, “it doesn’t hurt.”

"It is really convenient having the chip in your hand with all the things it can do," Westby told local media at the “Implant Party.” Three Square Market CEO Todd Westby told CNBC's "On the Money" in an interview recently.

"If you're a technology company, things like this are actually exciting. We don't look at it as being too weird. We initially decided to do it just because we thought it was … I guess you could say 'cool, something different'."

Re-engineering Humankind

These are intriguing first steps, and give us a glimpse of an incredible future. Just how far might humans go in using technology to re-engineer themselves, and where might that take us as a species?

If we combined all the computing power of advanced AI and machine learning and hooked that up to a human, the ultimate potential is unimaginable. Taken to a point, cyborgs would step out of science fiction and into the workplace, and the gap between humans and robots would start to narrow in a fascinating way.

Humans have been augmenting themselves for centuries, largely for cosmetic reasons, but the move for human enhancement has gathered pace in the last two decades.

Transplants, prosthetics, and gene therapy have all advanced rapidly and given us a glimpse of a future in which humans can be very specifically engineered for health, physical performance and also regarding their intellectual and mental capabilities.

RFID implants are at an early point. In November 2017, ten volunteers received microchip implants at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne as part of Pause Fest, a technology and culture event.

The chip, inserted with the same kind of needle used in body piercing, is about the size of a grain of rice and is only large enough to hold small amounts of information so far.

The chips inserted into the Melbourne volunteers were loaded with a three-day pass to the festival, and were also programmed to unlock doors to their workplace, gym or home, and also for use as a public transport pass.

Others who have had the technology implanted have opted for other applications.

Some have used it to access their cars or motorcycles, while one Melbourne researcher has a link to her website implanted. Other people can access her site if they scan her hand with their phones.

Creating Digital Human Resources

Human enhancement presents some ethical dilemmas which are yet to be negotiated, but such is the pace of technological change that some degree of enhancement may be a common choice for many people in the developed world by mid-century.

For organizations and Chief Digital Officers, this is an exciting prospect.

Not only will they be able to deploy next-generation technology across networks and devices, but the whole world of Human Resources may have been re-invented.

Ultimately, there may be a whole new area which I’ll call Human Digital Resources which organizations can leverage as a powerful and enhanced set of capabilities.

All of this shows that the debate about technology and work has been somewhat one-sided.

At this point, we should understand that digital transformation is becoming so pervasive that it is embracing not just the world of computing and IT, but humanity itself.