AI, Metaverse, Chatbots: Workplace Trends to Watch for in 2024

It's helpful to keep humans in the loop to explain everything from prompt libraries to immersive VR.

Bloomberg News

December 28, 2023

7 Min Read
metaverse meeting

(Bloomberg Opinion/Julia Hobsbawm) — Every end-of-year working assumption is the same: Next year will be different. This is the eternal optimism of business and the never-ending story of innovation. But this time it's true, certainly when it comes to workplace technology. All sorts of incredible things will be possible at your desk (wherever your desk is), but it will come with a price: possibly the steepest learning curve in knowledge work since the word processor way back in the analog age of the 1970s.

ChatGPT's arrival a year ago has captured the collective imagination with 100 million users per week, according to its creator, OpenAI.  Workers got a taste of what it's like to ask AI tools to write their emails and summarize documents for them, but in the year ahead these tools will only get more sophisticated and be able to respond to images, voice commands, and potentially carry out more complex tasks with limited human intervention. That has the potential to radically change the day-to-day experience of work.

But, as Roy Bahat, head of Bloomberg Beta, which has invested in artificial intelligence since 2014, told a recent conference, "it's pretty confusing." That said, he's adamant that AI tools are a career necessity, telling me on my podcast that "Just like when computers were first introduced, skills went on a resume. Saying today you are proficient in AI is a skill."

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AI Dividend

Humans do learn how to use technology, and amazingly fast when you think about it. But AI brings a new turn on the tech wheel, and we have to learn it, too. Why? Because the impact of AI on how we work and the jobs we do is as revolutionary as the internet. According to research from McKinsey Global Institute, the earnings boost for some banks is as high as $340 billion, or a 9% to 15% increase in operating profits.

As Peter Miscovich, global future of work leader at real estate firm JLL put it: "Generative AI has risen to become an equal and increasing priority for global organizations in comparison to the enterprise priorities of hybrid working and providing flexible work environments." But the corporate sector is on the same steep learning curve as you and me. JLL found in a recent survey that while generative AI comes in third in a ranking of impact on their industry (clean energy solutions is number one), it ranks lowest for "level of knowledge." 

The real estate sector isn't alone in recognizing the knowledge gap. Wipro, an Indian IT company, has committed $1 billion to training its 250,000 workers, both to help them understand generative AI but also to integrate it into its product offerings. Wipro's own webpage on AI shows a bewildering technical array of terms. Just as new acronyms define the flexible working era take your pick from GPU (graphics  processing unit), NLP (natural language processing), ML (machine learning), LLM (large language model).

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I sought the advice of Henry Coutinho-Mason, co-author of The Future Normal, to explain what's what in the ever-expanding lexicon of AI. "The next frontier of interactive and query-able chatbots is going to be voice activated not text-led," he said. "Either way, there are plenty of new things to get your head around such as the correct 'prompt' to give generational AI which will only be as good as the information it already stores and receives —  just like Google search was back in the day."

He also explained (patiently) that chatbots are only part of the AI equation, albeit a big one. Did you know that by this time next year you may have one of your own, an infinitely customized way of creating and using any information you choose in an app with your name or brand on it? Or, if you know how, it might only take you an afternoon to create your own personalized bot.

Immersive Metaverse

I've written about the importance of authenticity in the debates about generative AI and authentic has been named by Merriam Webster as word of the year for 2023. I predict that "immersive" may be a contender in the years to come.

Meta Platforms Inc. has bet big on representing the metaverse as a place for workplace training and brainstorming. This is all part of the education dividend in an "augmented" world being promised by Meta, as Nick Clegg, president of global affairs, outlined in a LinkedIn post earlier this year.

Sondre Kvam, co-founder and chief executive officer of Naer, a mixed reality workplace app which was selected to be part of the launch of Meta Quest 3 virtual headset, told me that "Avatar technologies seem to be frog-leaping each other every other week. Mixed reality workplaces have the potential to foster greater productivity than their hybrid and single location counterparts." And the global virtual reality market is projected to grow from $19 billion in 2022 to $166 billion by 2030, according to Fortune Business Insights.

At the heart of any investment in workplace technology is the desire to improve productivity. Naer shows how AI producers are pitching their products on a continuing rise in hybrid, remote or "mixed reality" workplaces. They are suggesting that in future you will be able to visit your office as an avatar just as you use teleconferencing, but that it will be far more engaging. This could be a significant antidote to "Zoom fatigue" – or it could be another version of the same old new technology promises.

We don't yet know. And, I realize I'm a contrarian here. The metaverse has been slow to take hold and Meta's embrace of it — to the point of changing its name from Facebook — so far has drawn more critics than supporters. But I, for one, see it as a longer term gamble worth taking as generations brought up on touchscreens and gaming enter the workplace.

Super Screeners

AI is poised to have a particularly big impact around talent acquisition and job search. Interestingly, the apprenticeship group Multiverse founded by Euan Blair, son of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is all about this new realm of digital possibility. From chatbots to metaverse and Slack channels to LinkedIn. It all has to be navigated and negotiated.

And not just by white collar workers. The most interesting of all the startups I have come across is Upwage, an employment platform for America's hourly wage workers. "We care about two things: wage and commute," co-founder Diana Tsai told me. "Our obsession was always to disrupt a very outdated and inefficient job search and application process for hourly workers but also how amazing it would be if we could build an AI interviewer that skipped the entire application process and enabled workers to instantly interview with employers. When GPT came we had the opportunity to combine our search-based engine with the employer side product."  Upwage's "Super Screener," launched in December, aims to save companies $336,000 a year while also providing candidate-convenient 24/7 screening. 

"We'd be talking to hourly workers who don't have time to interview except for on the weekends. When recruiters aren't working on the weekend, the Super Screener is," says Tsai.

A caveat here, too: There are very real concerns that using AI to automate recruiting and hiring will effectively automate bias. It's a complex problem, but the technology is only progress if that doesn't happen.

In the end, business loves nothing better than a new market, and AI is packed to the rafters with possibility. But, yes, it's complicated. Humans need to learn to use the technology which might, in fact, make their jobs obsolete — at least that's according to Elon Musk. "There will come a point where no job is needed. You can have a job if you want a job," he  told UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

I'm betting that Roy Bahat is right. We will get proficient at AI. And humans at work are not done yet.

Julia Hobsbawm is a columnist for Bloomberg Work Shift. 

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