Balance of Power, Columns, Jobs, Lifestyle

Living in a Virtual World (Part 2 – Work)


The virtual world is already transforming how we work. In Living in a virtual world. (Part 2- Work), HistoryFuture takes a look at four technologies that are emerging which will have a significant impact on work:   virtual working, virtual emigration, virtual humans and virtual presence.

First, virtual working.  Ten years ago people began to talk about telecommuting and hot desking.  This trend started sluggishly because the communications infrastructure was not fully there.  Today it is.  My small company, for example, has employees scattered all over Britain and works with suppliers and contractors from as far afield as Canada.  We all work from home, but are connected virtually through Skype video calls, Google Apps, FileMaker and Dropbox.  The system works very well and saves time and money for both the company and its employees.

Remote working is getting easier…

It is still not good enough for all of our needs.  We still meet physically for meetings with customers and suppliers and a have a monthly team meeting where we are all in the same place.

Computer games point towards a future whereby people may be even more comfortable working together virtually.  Massive Multiplayer Online games like The Lord of the Rings or World of Warcraft enable people who live thousands of miles away to interact in real time with each other.  They can talk, move around and interact with their virtual environments.  While it might be odd working with a colleague who choses a troll or a muscle bound warrior as his avatar, using a computer webcam to create a 3D image of your head that can be attached to a customised body might be more acceptable.

…eventually you might work with a colleague who choses a troll or a muscular warrior as his avatar.

Second,  virtual emigration.  Historically, if you wanted to go and work in a particular country you would need to physically move there. You would have to leave your family and friends behind. You would need to get immigration papers and eventually may become a citizen of the new country.  You would get paid in local currency and would local pay taxes.

Historically if you wanted to work in a particular country you would need to emigrate.  Virtual emigration may be a better option.

Virtual emigration may be a better option.  If you go to university in the United States, for example, you could make friends with a cohort of Americans.  On graduation, you could return to your home country and maintain those relationships.  You could work with those people in a virtual workspace and get paid a US level salary but live in your home country. If you come from an emerging economy the arbitrage between a western salary and an emerging economy’s cost of living could make you significantly better off than if you were to go down the historical route of actually emigrating.

Virtual emigration has a knock on effect on people in developed countries. You are not only competing with people in your own country for jobs but also with people who live thousands of miles away whose living expenses are significantly lower than yours.  That means that they will always be able to undercut you in terms of salary.  In order to keep your salary at a higher level you would need to show that you are significantly better than a virtual immigrant.  Eventually, this could result in significant unemployment for people in developed countries whose jobs do not require a physical presence and could be done in a virtual environment.   The smart thing for people who come from developed countries to do is to emigrate to lower cost countries and maintain your old job in a developed country virtually.

The smart thing for people who come from developed countries to do is to emigrate to a lower cost country and maintain your old job in a developed country, virtually.

Third, virtual humans.  Your new colleague might be a computer programme.  Watson, a computer developed and built by IBM famously beat the two best Jeopardy! TV show champions.  Watson’s involvement in the Jeopardy! challenge was both a marketing and a technical triumph.  Watson was able to listen to and then process through a database millions of facts to come up with a natural language response to the quiz master faster and more accurately than his human counterparts.

Your new colleague might be a computer programme.

IBM’s goal is to enable Watson to be used as a virtual colleague in the healthcare, finance, legal services, and customer services sectors.  Watson will be able to absorb all of the latest scientific and medical journals and should be able to provide better answers to many questions faster, more accurately and more cost effectively than its human counterparts.  As with virtual emigration, those who are in certain, more routine, parts of a service sector are at risk of losing their jobs.

People in the service sector are at risk.

Virtual presence is another area that is becoming increasingly widespread.  In a previous column about Japan, immigration and old age, HistoryFuture discussed the potential remote controlled robots.   Basic models already exist and are nothing more than Roombas (a robotic vacuum cleaner) hooked up to a webcam and a smart phone.  This allows people to interact remotely with the physical world.  If you are a specialist oil reservoir engineer based in Houston Texas, for example, you could help your colleagues on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico or on an oil platform in the Caspian Sea.  From the perspective of your employer you would not need to spend unproductive time travelling and getting a work visa.  The US military is already a massive proponent of virtual presence – unmanned aerial drones are all remotely operated by teams of pilots and engineers thousands of miles away.

The US military is a fan of virtual presence – aerial drones

Virtual working, in its variety of guises, will be very disruptive to the jobs of millions of people all over the world.  If you are in a job that could be outsourced to a computer like Watson you are vulnerable.  If you are smart and live in an emerging country you could benefit from a developed world salary and your home country’s expenses.  If you want to save money and time by skipping your commute then virtual working can help.  And finally, if you are a specialist whose main requirements are eyes and ears on the ground you could work on the other side of the world during the day and still be home for dinner with  your family.

Virtual working, in its variety of guises, will be very disruptive to the jobs of millions of people all over the world.

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