The way in which humans interact with computers is undergoing a dramatic shift that will have huge impact on the way we work in the future.

Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn’t far off the mark in predicting a future where an omnipresent machine (in this case, HAL) could assume the role of “colleague” or “crew member,” capable of speech recognition, natural-language processing, interpreting emotional behaviors, and automated reasoning, among other things.

While we are some way from seeing this as a reality in the workplace, it is the direction that human-computer interaction (HCI) is heading, with the potential for a level playing field to eventually exist between human and machine. Already, many of us are used to conversing with machines daily, making simple commands of voice assistants such as Siri and Alexa. The digital voice assistant market is booming, and the number of voice assistants in use is projected to increase from 3.25 billion in 2019 to around 8 billion by 2023. We are witnessing a generation of individuals entering the workforce who have grown up with smartphones and voice assistants, who are expecting to be able to ask the computer to perform some of the more mundane jobs for them.

From Toolbox to Colleague

In the early days of computing, humans served the computer, feeding it data through mechanisms such as punch cards, to help keep it running. Today, the computer has evolved into more of a toolbox, accessible via the two-dimensional interface of the screen, supporting us in what we need to do. But gradually, the dynamic between human and machine is shifting, with the computer on course to become a more pervasive form of intelligence that can surface through all digital platforms and computer systems, helping individuals to complete their tasks more easily and efficiently.

We have only just begun to see how artificial intelligence (AI) will influence interactions between humans and technology, and the capabilities of smart speakers such as Amazon Echo, Apple HomePod, and Google Home are already evolving from simple voice commands to supporting ecosystems of applications and interactions within the home. We have some way to go before we see voice and AI widely used as a component in systems for business and workflow, but there are already signs of the incoming change and the impact this will have on the future of work. The computer is shifting from a dumb tool into a colleague or PA, in the human sense of the term.

A Relationship of Trust and Collaboration

The emotional bond between humans and computers is also changing. If the two can work together in a cooperative manner, we could end up with an established relationship of trust. The computer has its own way of looking at the world, helping us as humans to be successful in other areas. In the future workplace, we may see the computer learning from the individual and eventually taking on repetitive monotonous tasks, for example, freeing up the individual to be more productive in their cognitive work. We may also see the voice assistant knowing “best” in some scenarios and making recommendations or suggestions to the human, calculating insights around the individual’s performance, advising them on how to prioritize their workload or how to make best use of the small timeframe they may have available for decision-making that day, or suggesting when they should take a break. Eventually, these principles could be applied to more complex scenarios, with the computer enforcing its recommendations upon its human colleague.

The Future of Work

To briefly revisit 2001: A Space Odyssey, those familiar with the film will know that HAL eventually takes control, putting his view of what was best for the mission ahead of what was best for his human crewmates. The scenario of a computer becoming the too dominant player in HCI is of obvious concern. However, our world is shaped toward human cognition, and AI is still programmed by humans and can only advance as fast as we choose — HAL only took control because a human had programmed him to do so.

In the future, we are likely to see a closer bond forged between humans and computers, which could dramatically impact the way we work, for the better. Some early stage innovation concepts were recently showcased at Citrix Synergy, which revealed parts of our vision for how Citrix will shape the future of work. Above all, the progression from “computer-shaped” interfaces to “human-shaped” interfaces will enable individuals to communicate and collaborate with computing systems in a “natural” and “human” way. In some of the use cases we are currently exploring, HCI will be intuitive, pervasively intelligent, and ultimately very useful, leaving the workplace as the same but, also, a very different concept.