Microchips and automation: Workplace predictions from a futurist

Microchips and automation

Would you implant a microchip in your employees?

It might sound crazy, but one company in Wisconsin is doing just that. Three Square Market, a provider of self-service breakroom vending machines, is implanting microchips in the hands of 50 employees, allowing them to buy snacks, log into computers, and use the company printer.

How, exactly, do implantable microchips benefit this company? And more importantly, is this something Canadian employers need to start thinking about?

To find out, we spoke with futurist Richard Worzel.

Workopolis: For those who don’t know the term, what is a futurist?

R.W. Like a biologist, who is somebody that studies biology, a futurist is somebody who studies the future as a discipline. And the purpose of doing so is to help people prepare for the uncertainties ahead.

How do you become a futurist?

It’s real simple; you raise your right hand and say “I am a futurist.” If you want, you can join the World Future Society, but the real issue is not do you have credentials and letters behind your name, but can you deliver the goods? Can you produce information, analysis, and ideas that help people prepare for uncertainty and plan intelligently to deal with it?

There is a lot of talk of automation, is that something that you’re dealing with a lot these days?

Yes, and as a matter of fact, I’ve just been working with two groups of clients, both very white-collar disciplines and they’re quite concerned about how artificial intelligence is affecting their potential future … so it’s not just blue collar workers that are concerned about automation.

This microchip idea proposed by Three Square Market has reportedly been introduced in some European companies. Is that something you’ve seen?

I’ve read about it in a number of contexts. It started with chipping pets, then there was talk about chipping kids to keep track of them, then chipping older people who might have various forms of dementia. In this case, the concept is to be able to track someone in the workplace, which also means being able to tell how productive they are, how much time they spend at their desk, walking back and forth to the coffee machine, how much time they’re lounging around, or not doing something.

The theory is that you can help people be more productive, but in my mind what you’re really doing is telling them we don’t trust you, and we want to keep a much closer eye on you.

How can this be used to make people more productive?

Well, if you look at what happened with the Toyota Prius, when it was first introduced, people started driving in such a way as to be more aware of fuel economy because they could see the results on the dashboard. So providing feedback to people, as to how they’re doing in certain goals, is a very good way of improving their ability to meet those goals.

Likewise, if you provide people with a way of telling them how much time they spend in productive work, and how much time they’re wasting, they would, even without any overbearing effort, naturally try to improve their results – that’s just human nature. People want to do a good job, so by providing feedback you can help them figure out what they need to do to be more productive.

What other kind of technology do you see coming into the Canadian workforce in the next decades? Are we on the cusp of some major changes?
  • Absolutely. In the next decade, we’re going to see dramatic changes in the workforce, so people and employers need to be prepared for that. And in particular, we’ll need to decide are we going to live in a world of the Borg or the hybrid?
  • The Borg is where automation displaces people, so people are put out of work, and automation does the job instead, and resistance is futile. The hybrid, on the other hand, is augmentation, where the machines work to support and assist humans and vice versa, because machines are good at certain kinds of things that humans aren’t, and humans are good at certain kinds of things that machines aren’t … And the result, if you have them work together, is you get a better outcome than having either one working on their own.
  • But organizations aren’t thinking that way, they’re thinking, “look at all the jobs we can get rid of by automation” instead of “look at how much more productive we can make our people with automation.”
So, what do you think should be done?

Well, first of all, it’s an attitude change on the part of employers.

In terms of individuals, you’re going to be facing automation and machines moving into your workplace, so rather than just saying, I don’t want it to happen, which is useless, ask yourself how can I make myself valuable in an era where machines make me more productive? What can I do to increase my value as a problem-solving creative being with enormous flexibility that the machines can’t duplicate?

Want to hear more from Richard Worzel? Listen to the latest episode of Safe for Work, the Workopolis podcast, on Soundcloud or iTunes. You can also listen to it on YouTube below.

See also:

The past, present, and future of employee development

What small businesses need to know about cybersecurity in Canada


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