Research think tanks constantly generate the latest tech ideas. But what is the magic that makes ideas marketable and human-centric?

Imagine the hard work regulating traffic on the busy entrance road of an airport, admonishing drivers from parking or waiting indiscriminately. People argue, cajole and offer compelling excuses. Tough job.

Now imagine having an ambulant robot doing the patrolling. There is no arguing with the android. Instructions and reminders can be displayed on the large screen. Drivers would loathe trying to argue with a robot. The android does not require lunch breaks and never gets tired. What a productive way to patrol this critical road and shoo off inconsiderate drivers, right?

It turns out that pedestrians and drivers alike were so amused and fascinated by the novelty of this robotic warden that they hampered the latter’s mobility and got in the way of its job. Time to get back to the drawing board for some iterative design thinking!

With all the fury and compunction to digitalise and transform, artificial intelligence has gained renewed focus and power. Machines, chatbots and robots can now be employed in non-routine, complex scenarios because of the improved digital connectivity to AI systems that guide the devices’ response. In the more extreme applications, Internet of Things (IoT) and other sensors feed voluminous video and audio data to the AI back end for advanced interactivity with humans.

Such Internet of Human (IoH) applications employ human sensing technology for analysis of facial expressions and gestures. The idea is to make AI responses more human and hopefully, more intuitive and consistent than humans!

Digital transformation requires design thinking

Remember how Bill Gates’ and Steve Jobs’ ideas were inspired by the mouse-input and graphical user interface prototypes when he visited the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the 70s? The technology think tank is now called the Fuji Xerox Palo Alto Research Lab (FXPAL) and it continues to innovate grand technology ideas to this day.

With its current mission of reimagining the future of work, FXPAL aims to enable deeper human collaboration though barrier-free communication. Its chief technology officer Dr Lynn Wilcox, is a huge believer of hyper(virtual) international video conferences that do not require participants to disrupt sleep or circumvent time zone issues to have fruitful discussions.

“FXPAL is focused on steering the future of work in terms of the workplace and the work style,” she said. “This is about people, and we help to promote their productivity and their well-being at work. Happy employees make happy customers.”

Embracing design thinking and harnessing computationally-intensive data analytics, Dr Wilcox and her team of 20 researchers are constantly developing big ideas even if they end up not being marketable or commercially feasible for the time being.

“When we are doing research, we don’t sit in our ivory towers. We may think a new idea is great, but when we talk to people in the real world, we may find that the real market is somewhere else, so we try to steer our research towards that market and try to introduce our new ideas there in the process.”

Towards smarter workplaces and mobile workforces

As Fuji Xerox and its earlier corporate entity Xerox are pioneers of print, their current vision is to rethink print for the age of digital transformation through FXPAL’s research. Going paperless productively requires that anything that does get printed is visually impactful and communicative.

Displacing print requires a concomitant boost in workflow productivity and workplace communication through digital intelligence — another area where the latest technologies such as ambient computing, IoH, human sensing and enterprise AI are key.

According to Dr Wilcox, as digital connectivity improves, it will “allow us to work less… and we can spend more time being humans — creating art and music, and spending time with family.” while growing into higher-level jobs and enjoy better job satisfaction and productivity.

Keeping ahead of workplace paradigm shifts

IBM’s latest survey showed that robots displacing jobs means that 120 million workers who survive the cut will require retraining in the next three years. The retraining will be 12 times longer than that in 2014, notes the survey. 

Meanwhile, the paradigms of work will inevitably shift towards greater workforce mobility, smarter workplaces and the increasing need for contingent workforces. FXPAL’s answer to facilitate such a paradigm shift is their MyUnity sensor-based software platform. The integrated collaborative communication application allows users and contacts can keep in touch regardless of their physical locations. MyUnity facilitates rich workplace awareness and yet affords total privacy when needed.

Another big idea is HyperMeeting, which allows users to conduct international video conferences asynchronously–that is, not “real-time” but via interactive video recordings that allow all participants of the hypermeet to view the recordings at their own pace and then add annotations at any point. Other FXPAL technologies in voice analysis can summarize conversations to distil salient points, recognize the key influencers in a discussion, and even discern emotions, trends and ideas from the conversation word clouds. Finally, they have technologies to enhance teleconferences by prompting participants to maintain eye contact and minimize interrupting other speakers. 

Federating privacy in the transformed workplace 

Digital transformation upheaves work paradigms and understandably, this involves a common underlying thread: monitoring and tracking of workers. The idea is that every staff’s movements and actions needs to be trackable to allow the corporation to offer the best resources and opportunities for that staff to function optimally and minimize overheads.

While this sounds more than a little creepy, Dr Wilcox assures us that there is reciprocity: the technology is employer-agnostic and only serves to foster workplace cohesiveness and teamwork as a laudable win-win proposition.