The smartphone in your pocket has more processing power than all the NASA computers involved in the moon landings combined. It may seem a bit of glib fact, but sometimes we need reminding of how far things have come in the last few decades. And how far they could go in the coming ones.
It’s an important point for Professor Jonny Freeman, founder of I2 Media Research. Based in Goldsmiths, University of London, his pioneering research business focuses on the impact of the latest technology on the world of work.
And walking into their office, you can tell. After all, there aren’t many places of work where you find eye-tracking headsets lying around – or high-end virtual reality (VR) systems hooked up to the TV.
While this magazine’s editor, Jyoti Rambhai, falls off a building… in VR, I ask Freeman how technology like this relates to the future of self-employment and the world of work: “There are a lot of applications for VR in the future of freelance work. People are already working remotely, but with VR we could be working from different places but still feel like we’re in the same room.
“We’re not far from that at all. There’s already volumetric capture of people and characters, so if you’ve got an avatar of yourself, it’s not much of a leap to animate it and track your movements.”
The possibilities for digital nomad and remote- working freelancers seem almost endless. It’s not just removing distance either. Freeman says the same technology could be used to create the ideal working conditions for freelancers. Almost like self-correcting cruise control.
“For optimal performance you need to be not too aroused but not too relaxed – challenged but not too challenged,” Freeman adds. “Well, VR systems can infer in real time how you’re feeling and adapt to help keep you at your most productive.”
For certain professional services, there are even more benefits to be had. Freeman points out that VR is already being used in architecture and other disciplines to prototype new buildings, designs and other creations. And as the technology improves, so will the applications.
As Modern Work’s editor tumbles, screaming, into a darkened tunnel, I ask about some of the other impressive gadgets around the office. First of all, a pair of extremely high-tech glasses.
“What eye tracking allows you to do is measure in real time where people are looking – how attentive they are. From that you can infer how fatigued they’re getting so you can recommend they take a break.
“You can also use their pupil dilation to work out their cognitive load – the effort they’re putting into their working memory. So, in effect, you should be able to build a system where the work presented to people is adapted to be best understood by them.”
Imagine, Freeman says, a system where when it tracks that you’re struggling with the complexity of a piece of work, it presents you with something simpler. Where, when it gauges that you’re getting bored, it suggests you should take a break. Where, when it picks up the fact that you’re getting stressed, it changes the colour palette and puts some soothing music on.
If this is all sounding a little futuristic, well, some of it is and some of it isn’t. Some of it, like collaborative VR systems, is already here.
Freeman says: “At the moment, the reason this sort of tech isn’t common in people’s living rooms and studies is that it’s pretty expensive. It cost a couple of thousand pounds to set up our VR system, so it’s definitely an investment. And until the price comes down, we’re at a stage where technology makes things possible, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the market’s going to immediately adopt it.”
It’s not just the cost either. If all this is indeed starting to sound a bit futuristic, it’s probably because many people just aren’t comfortable with some of this technology and the data sharing it involves.
Freeman believes this could well change: “I think there’s a natural learning, acceptance and adoption process like you would see with any technology. If someone had told you 20 years ago that today you’d be posting pictures of what you’re eating, where you are and how you’re feeling on public platforms, I think you’d have raised an eyebrow.
“There will probably be a shift over time where if people perceive benefits from sharing the different kinds of data we’re talking about, they will start to change their attitudes. If they don’t, they won’t.”
As Jyoti drags herself out of the tunnel and stumbles into an elevator, there’s just one more question: what about the wider workforce beyond freelancers? What about artificial intelligence (AI)?
Freeman says: “You can’t pick up a newspaper without reading about these huge numbers of jobs that are going to be made redundant because machines are going to do them.
“I think the reality is there are a huge number of jobs where human intelligence and emotional intelligence are extremely important. There may be some jobs that will be automated or become obsolete, but there is a massive proportion of the workforce, especially knowledge economy workers, that I don’t believe is at risk from AI and technology replacement – any time in the near future, at least.”
For most freelancers then, there is a future, and it’s bright… or dark, or sepia-toned – or whatever palette their VR headset thinks most appropriate.
This magazine’s editor finally escaped her VR trial. Readers can be assured she is now sitting at her desk, mostly recovered.