South by – So What? Episode 2: Technology (aka how to justify playing with VR as “work”)

There were a lot of streams of learning at SXSW. A lot.

I picture the scheduling team laughing evilly as they put the line-up together, gleefully imagining all the festival goers legging it from one end of Austin to the other in the dim hope of making it into the next impossibly cool session.  Villains, one and all. 

Anyone who has been lucky enough to have to wade through the impossible-to-choose-between options that the scheduling demons line up simultaneously, knows that you have to make some pretty cut and dry choices. Do I pick the sessions that are immediately aligned to my goals? Do I pick a palate-cleanser that has nothing at all to do with my day to day world? Do I pick something that feels just out of reach for what I know right now? 

It’s exhausting. I need a lie down just remembering it.

Two of the key things I hunted down were the future of work, and technology – and where they inevitably converge. Here are a few of my take outs on where humans will continue to be essential, where we start designing our workplaces of the future, and what we should expect of both tech and humans in this new augmented world.

Choosing humans (nee “recruitment”)

We’ve been working with AI recruitment for a little while now, and there was plenty of discussion around robots replacing human recruiters – particularly in the executive recruitment space. What excites me is the potential for AI to remove human biases, and start to draw on vast outcome data to predict candidate success. Traditional hiring looks at qualifications, experience, references, and good old formatting (with bonus points for non-traditional presentation that cuts through the noise). The future of hiring is entirely different; you can look first for value alignment, or simply the right attitude. AI can assess the candidate in the context of the existing environment and determine that an extrovert would be more beneficial to the productivity of the team than an introvert, or that someone with strong analytical skills but slightly less experience would be an accelerator to the group. (Joshua Klein, 2019)

Recruiters are seeing how much of their world can be disrupted – with a narrowing view of where humans still have the upper hand. If you’re looking to convince someone to move for a job – across countries, or to a small town – AI can’t yet empathise well enough on what matters in that decision, and how to help someone work through all the considerations. If you’re trying to fill a role in a big city – AI can take in many more factors in a lower-bias way, at a lower cost, than a human can. (Craig Fisher, 2019)

One thing that this doesn’t consider though, is whether people are willing to be recruited by AI. If that’s the only way to apply with your organisation, and others are still using humans – will this change top applicants’ willingness to choose your organisation?  My gut says that if you’re not willing to even try the tech, you’re probably not a fit for where I want to take my organisation – and maybe that view in itself creates differentiators for those who disagree.

I asked Joshua Klein, CEO H4X Industries about programmed bias in recruitment AI, and whether we’re better to keep doing the final “culture fit” tests with humans. In the future state, he shared my view that it’s too early to tell which will give the best results. The impact of programming bias – how good the questions that we teach the AI to begin with, and the data that we suggest is meaningful in judging the success of the hire – is still unclear. (Joshua Klein, 2019)

My personal view is that while right now, humans are still an important test of the soft-fit factors, this won’t be the case for long. As our AI starts to mature, and we allow it to shape its own approach – to the point of discarding the questions we told it to begin with, if they’re artificially impacting the outcome – that’s when we’ll be able to test whether bots beat humans in this field.

What about the workforce?

It wasn’t a surprise that there was some discussion around the workforce of the future – both the transition of our current workforce to a digitally-supported reality, and the next generation. There is an assumption that our “digital native” kids will be ready to leap into a workplace where AI support is commonplace, and from an education perspective STEAM subjects are trying to help prepare the skills that will be needed. (Sid Bhatia, 2019)

When I shared with the Stellar SXSW team some of what I was hearing, thinking and plotting around technology in the employee engagement space, there were mixed views. What would people find invasive – would it freak people out if we were monitoring their body temperature to see how they were coping? Would people hate having AI making suggestions to them, or reminding them when their productivity was waning? Would they love having a robot to talk with instead of a person?

Each new revolution – industrial, technological – must surely have brought with it this sense of near-overwhelming unpreparedness for the generation who exist in the eye of the hurricane. The reality is that we probably don’t know what to teach the next generation to get them “ready” for a future in the workforce – because we have no idea what that will look like. What we can do is help foster imagination, creativity, courage in the face of uncertainty, and passion. (Martin Wezowski, 2019) 

Shiny things – silver bullets and lunar modules

What new technologies in the workplace potentially enables us to deliver as an employment experience is pretty gob-smacking.  From biometric analysis of real-time reactions, through to VR-supported training, more AI recruitment, and emotionally supportive robots, the landscape is vast and fragmented.

Finding the right solutions is going to be the trick, and it won’t be the same for all industries, or even for all employers within an industry. As SAP’s Chief Designer and Futurist, Martin Wezowski, put it: “Beyond you do things right, you have to know what the right thing is.”

That takes a bit of time to imagine, and to explore. Discovering what is out there is one part of the puzzle; imagining how the piece could fit is a whole other stage, and that’s where PLAYING comes in. You know how I feel about creativity and innovation; I also believe that play, and experience, and looking for inspiration in the world around us, is key.

I took time to check out the SYFY channel’s VR experience, “Eleven Eleven”. A new structure of immersive experience and parallel storytelling, it was fascinating to be able to teleport between concurrent narratives in a dying world. I also got to experience “MicroGiants” by Digital Domain – an insect’s view of life in the forest, which was just beautiful. I shot “aliens” out of the sky in an AR game, played Flash Darts on a thunderous Haptic Floor, and engaged with some truly amazing art. Oh, and we all ordered coffee in sign language through a machine that monitored (and coached) our hand positions. All in the name of research, I swear.

My observation is that when organisations have a problem or an opportunity to address with shiny new tech, we often look for a silver bullet – to solve this and protect us from another thing. It can make us slow, or limit what we’re prepared to try. In emergent solutions, we need to be comfortable that solutions may do just what is needed – nothing more – at least to begin with.  Early tech begins this way, and that doesn’t diminish its impact; the lunar module technology is boggling rudimentary by today’s standards, but it did exactly what it needed to – and nothing more. (Margaret Weitekamp, 2019) 

So what?

It is an exciting time to be a human in a soon-to-be-augmented business world. We are the teams that understand enough about the human side to help overcome the fears that come with robots, AI, and the elimination or augmentation of work. I think that our inherent desire to play with new things – to interact with Aibo (Sony’s robot dog) or Clio (LG’s robot assistant), to fly drones or try VR or play AR games – is the tool that we all bring along on this unmapped journey.

In the context of the workplace, I think our relationships will need to be stronger, human to human, as we remove so much of the administration and simplex, repeatable tasks.

AI and automation in the workplace will force us to find or foster a tribe we actually want to be part of. 


  • Tanya Khaiyanun, 2019 “Badging, biometrics and “butts in seats” – the shifting tides of workplace data” presented at SXSW, Austin, 12 March 2019
  • Joshua Klein, 2019 “AI will control employees by design or by accident” presented at SXSW, Austin, 12 March 2019
  • Craig Fisher, 2019 “HR to Bots: Job displacement in the AGE of AI” presented at SXSW, Austin, 12 March 2019
  • Martin Wezowski, 2019 “What is Human, What is Work in a Superhuman Future?” presented at SXSW, Austin, 10 March 2019
  • Mark Cherry, 2019 “Science fiction, or future science?” presented at SXSW, Austin, 8 March 2019

About The Author

Rik Johnson
Rik heads up Stellar’s Intelligent Automation business, where she and her team of digital optimists are building and nurturing bots that bring out the best in people.

Rik has previously worked in product management, solution development, project management and commercial relationship management, and has over 16 years’ operational experience. She’s inherently curious, optimistic and enthusiastic, and brings this energy to each new product or problem she encounters.

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