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Looking Ahead to 2024

  • 4 min read

– two technologies Guy Osmond is watching with interest!

As a rule, I don’t waste much time making predictions about the future as they are invariably wrong, and reality is always vastly more interesting, challenging and wondrous than anything we might forecast from our current vantage point.

However, there are two areas of cutting-edge technology which have really captured my imagination this year, and I can’t resist a moment of reflection on where we are and what might come next!

Artificial Intelligence

In 2023, we saw AI explode into the mainstream with the launch of ChatGPT, Google’s Bard and others. These tools are free and easily accessible to anyone connected to the internet. There followed some energetic debate covering everything from which jobs might become obsolete, to the potential existential threat posed by this advancing technology.

The demise of mankind aside, the one thing I hope we don’t see is AI replacing our human writers. I can’t imagine how much online content, especially on social media, has already been written by AI but, personally, I have no desire to give my finite human time to read something written by a computer.  And while I have been making more use of these tools myself, it is primarily as a means of research; rest assured dear reader, our social content, blogs and eBulletin (which has just marked its 14th anniversary) are all written by real live human beings!

This technology is moving at an incredible pace and, with each new development, I find myself excited and terrified in equal measure. Take for example Veed, an online video editor I’ve been using. This has just added a voice cloning feature – included in the negligible cost of an annual subscription. Read two or three paragraphs of provided text – and it’s done; it can read any text back to you in your own voice.

It’s not perfect but it’s good enough to be pretty bloody scary! You just have to imagine a phone message in your voice asking your Finance Officer to transfer money to a certain bank account and you get an idea of the potential for misuse. Sadly, as we’ve seen with criminal and other nefarious use of the internet, human beings do tend to corrupt, abuse and pervert technology to their own shady ends, regardless of the intent of those who create it!

From a workplace perspective, I do see AI having some really interesting applications in data processing and analysis. Now, more than ever, employers are seeking reliable data on which to base decisions about workplace design and real estate management. However, whilst some data (e.g. occupancy) are easy to analyse quantitively, much of the crucial information is more nuanced and qualitative. AI can collate and interpret qualitative as well as quantitative data and could therefore help us get a clearer view of answers to questions like where do we work best? As we come to realise that it is not a simple binary decision of office- or homeworking, slicing and dicing data from multiple sources in multiple formats will bring a real picture of mature workplace design in a post-Covid world.

3D Printing

3D printing, another fascinating technology with a handy two-digit moniker, has also come a long way in 2023, as has my understanding of its scope.

My year began with a trip to the Stockholm Furniture Fair, where some of the exhibitors exploring new frontiers of 3D printing gave a glimpse into a possible future. As well as some beautiful 3D printed furniture, I saw – in ‘additive manufacture’ - the beginnings of an exciting new model for sustainable manufacture and use. The Scandinavian design house Normada, for instance, has a cradle-to-cradle design model, with 3D printed furniture designed for end-of-life dismantling, either for renewal or upcycling, or shredded and pelletised for use in creating new pieces by the same method. Crucially the designs are open source, so could be recreated locally anywhere in the world.

Now, at the end of 2023, I am talking to designers in the US and the Netherlands with products such as a stylised tree with a 3D printed trunk (made with pellets from post-consumer or post-industrial waste), with wooden branches and leaves stamped from reprocessed felt. It is a product made entirely of natural or 100% recycled materials. The design can be purchased and the design file emailed anywhere in the world. Printing it on a 3D printer close to the end-user cuts the carbon footprint enormously. As an extra bonus, this product also hits the mark in terms of biophilic design and acoustic benefit.

And, in contrast to the historically wasteful world of office furniture, this product can be shredded and pelletised at the end of its life, to start again. While there is some inevitable degradation, it means the effective lifespan for the raw materials is stretched from five or ten years to more like 30 to 50 years.

It ticks so many boxes, and while the machinery is still expensive, and speed of production still an issue, innovators are already making this work. My contact in Amsterdam already has five machines working eight hours a day, five days a week.

The growth potential is monumental. It will bring change but, just as with AI, while some traditional jobs may vanish, an ecosystem of ancillary jobs will spring up, as they do with any epoch-defining technology. Think of the printing press putting scribes out of work, but creating jobs for countless others, and ushering in an information revolution.

Whilst that revolution took time, the pace of change has accelerated exponentially since William Caxton’s day! To put this into context, when I was an A Level maths student, I went to see an early commercial computer. It had several enormous tape reels like something out of an old James Bond film and filled an air-conditioned room. However, the additional body heat of 12 visiting students shut it down in less than ten minutes! Today, your mobile phone has thousands of times more processing power.

That was less than 50 years ago – so what today’s students will see in their lifetime is anyone’s guess. As for 2024, we’ll just have to wait and see…!

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