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real conversations

The metaverse and the future of work

Real Conversations podcast | S4 E9 | August 4, 2022




Ranked as one of LinkedIn’s Top 5 Business Influencers in the World, Bernard Marr is an internationally recognized futurist, award-winning author, CEO, and advisor to many of the world’s best-known organizations on digital transformation strategies and business performance.

As the world explores the shift to the metaverse, what is the future of work? Futurist Bernard Marr tells us that we’ll need technical skills, but the real job security will come from the skillset that can’t be replicated by artificial intelligence.

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity. 

Michael Hainsworth: The metaverse is coming. In many cases, it's already here and has been since 2016 - when the first consumer grade VR headset, Oculus Rift, took the tech world by storm and smartphones were chasing down Pokémon in public parks. But as artificial intelligence and newer lighter headsets and handheld devices fuel Web 3.0, the business world is opening itself up to the Metaverse, too. Bernard Marr is a futurist and the author of Future Skills. He believes we'll turn over the mundane aspects of our business life to AI and the metaverse will help us lean on the skills best suited to humans. So, my first question is, what role will the metaverse play as a key business trend over the next 10 years?

Bernard Marr: Great question. And I believe the metaverse is one of the major business trends that we all need to get ready for. And the metaverse, basically, is for me, the next iteration of the internet, which will make accessing the internet and using the internet more immersive. And we talk about Web 3 in this context, so it's the third evolution of the internet. The first evolution was when it all started with static web pages that we looked at, then the second evolution, Web 2 was all about social media, it's about user generated content. And what we are seeing now, in the third evolution, is the metaverse is where we are making things more immersive, where we are exploring and experiencing the internet from within, and we project things around us.

So, for me, a really good example is if you look up dinosaurs, and you Google a number of dinosaurs. You have now the possibility to put them as augmented reality in front of you. You can use your phone, it will then look at the real world, project the dinosaur in the actual size in front of you, a moving dinosaur that you can then walk around. You can see it in your garden, in your kitchen, which obviously makes things much more engaging, much more real, and much more immersive. And there are huge opportunities for every single business in this context.

MH: But why does work need a metaverse?

BM: For the work context, I think there are huge opportunities, especially as our work becomes more digital. There're obviously huge opportunities for companies when it comes to engaging their customers in a more immersive way, but also how we work. If you think about how we've transitioned from real meetings to Zoom meetings and Teams meetings, and we are looking at each other on a 2D screen right now, wouldn't it be cool if we could meet up somewhere in a 3D world, where if we wanted to do this podcast somewhere on the moon, we could do that, and if we wanted to look whatever way we wanted to look, we could do that? And I have recently delivered a keynote for AT&T, which was pretty cool. I was in a film studio in London in 3D. And then I was simultaneously being projected as a hologram in front of a live audience in Singapore and in Sydney.

And for me, this is pretty mind-blowing technology, that this is already possible today. And so, in the future, if we wanted to meet, I could put you as a hologram into my room, for example, or we could meet wherever we wanted to meet. And then it allows us to do other things. If we think about how exhibitions and events are going to change in the future. I still remember pre-pandemic where I was clocking up so many air miles, traveling the world, getting on a 12-hour flight to deliver a half an hour keynote somewhere, and then flying 12 hours back. And then you fly thousands of people from across the world or to these places to watch someone on stage, when you can actually do this in the same way online today. There are no limitations in terms of audience. There's no impact on the environment, so it is better all around.

And if we then went to an exhibition, so what's happening at the moment is that lots of these exhibitions are moving into the metaverse. And you think, actually, they're probably better than real exhibitions and real events, because I find them hugely tiring - you walk and walk and walk all day long to find your meetings, find the different places to meet. Then you usually, if you want to go to a certain stand, you then join the queue for someone to speak to. They then can only show you what is on the stand, or they can show you a video of something. In the metaverse, I can fly to any place in this exhibition. I can meet with people; I can switch the sound off and have a one-to-one meeting with someone.

And then if they wanted to demonstrate a product, we can then do this in the metaverse. We can then create digital twins of any building, of any product, and then we can explore this. So, if you wanted to test drive a car, you can do this right there, instead of having all the constraints and the negative elements of real meetings.

MH: It makes me think though, of the phrase, this meeting could have been an email. We have to make the work-verse better than the workplace. Is there a role for artificial intelligence in that?

BM: Absolutely. If you ask me in the beginning, what are the two biggest trends that I talk to businesses about? It is AI and the metaverse. AI is basically enabling us to create this metaverse and it's enabling us to create these amazing experiences. What we can already do today is you can take a photo of yourself and, or a short video of yourself, and then use this to generate an avatar of yourself. This is applying AI. For me, one of the best examples that I've recently experienced is, we went to see the ABBA Voyage in London. I don't know whether you've heard of this. This is basically, the four members of ABBA spend a month or so in a film studio, where they recorded every little detail of them, their facial expressions, their movements, their dancing, their singing, and then they used AI to create avatars of themselves.

And they then used AI, because they're all in their 70s now, they used AI to bring them back into their prime as if they were in the 1970s. And what is interesting is that my wife is not really that into technology. And I was a little hesitant to take her there, because I thought we're watching avatars. We're not watching the real band. But they have real life musicians there, a real band, and then the whole building is purpose build. So, you have these amazing light effects, they have an amazing screen. And halfway through, my wife leaned over to me and said, "Basically, this will make any other normal concert look rubbish now, because it's just so much more immersive and so amazing."

So, they spent a month in a CGI studio, filming themselves. Fast forward a few years, we will be able to use the same technology from our smartphones. We can scan ourselves, our facial expressions, turn this into an avatar, move forward and backwards in time, whatever we want to do. And those are just amazing possibilities that we can't have today.

MH: Well, perhaps this sort of ties into my next question. If your wife isn't very technically inclined, a lot of people aren't very technically inclined. In your book, Future Skills, you write that there are 20 of the most important skills for the future of work, but looking at them, most of them aren't actually technical skills. Why?

BM: This is a really important question, what skills will we need in the future? And basically, after every keynote I've delivered over the last 10 years on the future of technology, one person will ask at the end, "What does this mean for me, for my children, for humanity? How do we compete with intelligent machines that can do amazing things?" They can already be creative. Machines can write books, they can speak to us, they can understand our emotions. Where does it leave humans? And somehow, I wanted to write a book almost for my own children as well. I have three children between the ages of 10 and 16, so, they're getting ready for their future workplace. What I want to do is to really figure out what skills do we need.

And actually, the story I want to tell is that this is actually a positive story, that the future will hopefully make us all more human and will value all of these human skills. There are some technical skills I talk about, like digital literacy. You need to understand what tech is available and how it can be used. Data literacy is becoming increasingly important, as data is the lifeblood for companies. Technical skills in every job will be important. Maybe some awareness of the digital threats that we are now facing from viruses and ransomware attacks and all of this. But beyond that, the rest of those skills are all the skills that make us truly human.

They are things like critical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, being able to communicate well with others, being able to have an awareness of ethical implications, having good leadership skills, good collaboration skills. All of these things are things that machines can't do, and they won't ever be able to do to an extent that humans can. This is the positive story that, hopefully, even though technology will displace parts of most jobs, they will also create new opportunities. This is a story about human potential. We, as humans, are able to do amazing things that machines will not be able to do. They can't imagine a new future and build and be creative. Creativity, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, all of these are super important skills in the future. And what I do in the book is explain why they're so important and also how to improve them and develop them.

MH: Sort of touched on some of the more technical skills though, and I remember there was a time when we would put Microsoft Word on a resume under skills. What are the technical skills that we need today that will actually become quite commonplace a decade from now?

BM: Good question. Some of the technical skills are around the use of data. As I say, it's the lifeblood of modern organizations. What is really important is that everyone in the workplace understands the importance of data and how to turn data into insights, how to turn data into value. And this means we need people that have some of the statistical understanding, some of the data science skills, but also some of the programming skills. Those technical skills are in huge demand. It doesn't mean that everyone needs to become a data analyst, far from it. I think the other thing that is going to happen is that AI will make things easier in the future. In the past, when we, for example, needed to find an answer to a question, we would look at a database, we would then look at data, find the right way to analyze this data, and then find an answer.

In the future, this pull concept will move much more to a push concept, where instead of pulling information out of our systems, we need to have some understanding of where the information is and how to turn it into insights. This will be done by AI increasingly, where we have huge data lakes in our organizations, we have intelligent software that will sit on top of it, that will understand, "It looks like you've got some issues here. There are some customers that are particularly unhappy. There are some employees that are more likely to leave." And this information will then be analyzed by the machines and push towards you. And again, we are making huge progress in terms of interfaces with machines, especially natural language processing, where we can speak to it. We can now speak to our speakers. We speak to our phones and our watches.

In the future, you can speak to your data. You can simply say, "Who are our most profitable customers?" And the AI will understand your question. It will understand where to find the data, how to analyze it, and how to turn it into insights, and then speak it back to you or give you a visual of it. And if you then couple this with the metaverse, we can make this even more immersive, where you can look at different scenarios and you can look at graphs and data sets from within, by then looking at a screen. This is all super exciting.

MH: Yeah. In the 1990s, when they rebooted Star Trek, we like to look back at that and see examples of technology that they suggested would be in our future and turned out to be the iPad. But I recall being a computer geek back in those days, that the captain would just ask the computer a natural language question, and he would understand how to process the analysis required to give you the answer it needed.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard:
Computer, download all information regarding signal beacon from star-based mainframe.

Distress beacon used by the European Hegemony.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard:
Computer, locate the exact dates in which the signal beacon was in general use.

Old earth calendar, 2123 until 2190.

Commander William T. Riker:
No extraterrestrial source ever used this code?


MH: The time I was like, there's no way you're just going to be able to talk to a computer and it will figure out what the number crunching needs to be and the algorithm has to be, to be able to pull out the data that you need and give you the correct answer. But you're suggesting with AI, we're not that far off from that.

BM: Absolutely. We are already there. Many of the analytics platforms already have natural language integration and they're performing pretty well. And for me, this is no different to asking your Alexa, what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. You're pulling if they're understanding or question and pulling information from somewhere, and this will only become more sophisticated. And you talk about Star Wars, Star Trek, all Sci-Fi movies somehow are a very good indication of where we are going. When I talk about the metaverse, I talk about the film, Ready Player One, which is a great illustration of what the metaverse could look like in the future.

Wade Watts:
You don't need a destination when you're running on an omnidirectional treadmill with quadraphonic pressure sensitive underlay. James Halliday saw the future, and then he built it. He gave us a place to go, a place called The Oasis.

BM: And you talked about the iPad. When I gave my presentation the other day as a hologram, I could beam myself into those places where there was a physical audience. And a bit like in Star Trek, little pixels would build up off me on stage. And so, a lot of the technology we are building is obviously based on our human imagination. And I think some of the Sci-Fi movies are showing the path of where would like to be, whether this is flying cars or speaking to our watches or being a hologram that can be beamed anywhere.

MH: I suppose, perhaps the most important skill required over the next decade in the world of work is the ability to be a continuous learner.

BM: I agree. I am hugely frustrated about the way our education system is working at the moment, because our education system was built really for the first industrial revolution where we say, "Okay, we need to prepare humans for the future of work, and we would need to give them as many skills and as much knowledge as possible." And we do this for the first 16 or 18 years, and then they go into the workplace, and they then have all the skills they need. Work has changed so massively. One of my favorite studies was done by Dell and the Institute of the Future, that looked at the jobs we will have in 2030. And one of the most staggering statistics from that research, was that 80% of the jobs we will have in 2030 do not exist today. So, what we are currently experiencing is the half-life of skills.

You asked me about some of the technical skills we need. Yes, if you have Python programming skills today, that is very valuable. In 10 years time, we will have new languages. We will have completely new ways of programming. If you look at what open AI is doing with GPT-3, this is a super sophisticated AI that can actually program computer programs, simply based on you describing what you want the computer program to do. It listens to your natural language, understands it, and then codes it for you. In this context, what we need to realize is that... I don't even know what skills we will need in the future, what technical skills we will need in five or 10 years time.

And I look at my own career, if someone said to me that in 2022, I will speak to Michael as a futurist that I’ll be talking about the metaverse and AI, I would've thought you're completely crazy. I've never heard of any of these things. And my own career has changed from doing different things.

MH: Right. Where would you even go to school to learn that sort of thing?

BM: Yes. And a huge challenge is that lots of schools and even universities are not updating their curricular fast enough to embrace all of this. If you study accounting or engineering or medicine, there are huge implications for how technology like Web3, metaverse, AI, blockchain technology will transform and completely disrupt those industries. But you can go and have an accounting degree, and at the end, never really understood blockchain technology, never understood the metaverse, never really understood how AI will transform accounting in the future. What this will mean is that we need to find new ways of continuously educating ourselves.

I think there's a huge role for businesses to make sure that their employees have the right skills. So, when I work with some of the biggest brands in the world, what we do is, I recommend to them, they are really honest with everyone in the workforce to say, "Okay, these transformations are happening here." The future of work is changing, the future of our jobs will change completely. There will be some jobs that we will lose, but we've always had this throughout history. We think about, if we go back in time, we've had people that were making horses shoes, then we had elevator attendance. I think in the future, I don't think we'll have taxi drivers or supermarket cashiers. At the same time, we'll create new jobs.

And what the research is showing us at the moment is that the number of new jobs will outpace the number of jobs we lose. For most of us, it will mean that our jobs are going to be augmented, so they will change to some extent. And we will use more automation, more intelligent tools, and we'll work alongside with them. At the same time, using more of our really human skills, because we have so much potential. And even in my own job, I do a lot of writing. I write for Forbes, I write books. And in the past, I had a proofreader. I would write something, send this out, make sure there's no mistakes. Nowadays, I use an AI enabled tool that would do amazing proofread for me while I write. And so, we will use more of those tools. And this actually, you would again think, is proofreading really the best way to use our amazing skills that we have as humans?

MH: Well, to the point about business having a role to play in educating a workforce for the future, you cite the global IT company Infosys  as an example of a company that recognizes the importance of being a continuous learner.

BM: Yeah. So, Infosys is really interesting. Why this is an interesting company, is that they have not only looked at the importance of continuously educating their own workforce, but they have also looked at, how do we recruit people with the right skills in the future? I've recently talked to the CEO. And one of the things he was talking to me about was the fact that they need to find people with the right skills. And they're now not looking at the skills and the attainment people have had in schools. They don't look at your CV, in terms of, these are the schools you've gone to, these are the certificates you've had, anyone can apply. If you want to become a coder, for example, they will not even look at your current coding skills. They will look at the potential for you to learn those skills.

If you are a taxi driver in Mumbai, you can perform some of these online tests, and they again use AI to assess some of those skills and some of your potential. And if the AI then says, "Okay, this person has the potential to learn these skills," we'll pick them up pretty soon, then they can offer them a job. Which for me, is a fascinating story and an illustration of how our current education system is becoming less relevant to the future of work.

MH: If there's one thing you want the listener to take away from this conversation, what is it?

BM: That I think there's hope, that sometimes when we talk about future technology, we place it as humans against machines, and there's some sort of competition. I recently read a really interesting book called The New Breed [by Kate Darling], which places technology in the same sense that we look at domesticated animals, where we are the masters, they help us. Guide dogs help the blind to navigate the streets. And we use all of these amazing tools. And we have AI, we have the metaverse, all of this will come, but they're all tools we can use to fulfill our human potential.

There's nothing to be scared about, but it means we all have to continue to learn. We need to have this growth mindset to say, "Actually, the world is going to be very different in 10 years time, I need to continuously make sure I am ready and relevant." And hopefully, this will make our world a more human place, where we will give some of the work that humans shouldn't really waste their potential on to machines, giving us the opportunity to become more human.

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