Flying cars, teleportation, the holodeck.
Science fiction has predicted a myriad of awesome technologies that, sadly, have yet to enter our reality (although we’re getting pretty close on the flying cars).
What you might not realize, however, is that some of the technology sci-fi predicted decades ago is already here, and becoming integral to modern project management.
In science fiction, technological breakthroughs often lead to disastrous results. After all, every story needs conflict.
In reality, technological breakthroughs are happening every year, and—for the most part—are helping life and work run smoother, faster, and (in the long run) cheaper. Technology is a project manager’s best friend (well, technology and good people).
For the four technologies listed below, I’ll look at their portrayal in science fiction, how they’re making modern project management better, and what applications this tech could have in the future.
Four sci-fi predictions about modern project management
1. Artificial intelligence
C’mon HAL, be cool…
The science fiction
The way the story usually goes is that humans make their AI so intelligent that it becomes self-aware and sentient. The AI then decides that humans are a threat to its well-being, and acts accordingly (annihilation). Our soft flesh and emotions are usually no match for its sharp metal parts and supercomputer intellect.
(To be fair, science fiction has also portrayed AI in a positive—or at least more benevolent—light; think R2-D2 and Rosie the Robot.)
The good news: AI isn’t out to get us. In contrast, it’s already a helpful tool in many project management applications. And the connection between AI and project management is far from a recent development.
More than 30 years ago, W.N. Hosley wrote an article titled “The application of artificial intelligence software to project management.” The article predicted that AI would eventually be able to perform project management tasks like “Preparing an optimum project schedule and budget” and “Performing Value and Risk analysis.”
Features like AI-assisted scheduling, budgeting, and risk management are now standard in many project management software packages.
Another example is software that teaches you how to use it as you use it through integrated tutorials, or chatbots that help users interface with their project management system.
What will the future bring? Imagine having a conversation with your project management apps instead of typing, the same way you ask Alexa or Siri for the weather or news. “How’s our budget looking, Pam?” or “Show me the latest project timeline, Pam.” Gartner predicts that “By 2020, the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse.”
In the future, AI could analyze enormous data sets and make recommendations based on that analysis, aiding businesses as data becomes more and more plentiful and makes it impractical to utilize traditional methods. You can also envision a future where you hire a new employee based on culture-fit and soft skills, and your AI assigns them the perfect role within your organization based on quantifiable experience and aptitude.
But don’t get carried away. While algorithms and voice assistants will continue to aid project managers in the near future, we’re still a long ways from AI drone assistants and automatons in the workplace. In Gartner’s Artificial Intelligence Primer for 2018 (full report available to Gartner clients), Whit Andrews and Tom Austin write: “The transformative potential of AI is shackled by extravagant hype, which drives misunderstanding, inflated expectations and skewed assessments of AI’s business value.”
In other words: be thankful for our AI-augmented risk management analysis and budget forecasting while remaining optimistic for the humanoid cyborg project managers of the future.
This is just the ‘temporary tattoo’ version of a microchip
The science fiction
In George Lucas’ first film—”THX 1138“—everyone is identified by a three-letter, four-digit code and controlled by android police. In 1974’s “The Terminal Man“—based on the novel by Michael Crichton—a mental patient has neurotransmitters implanted in his brain to control violent impulses. And in “The Matrix,” Neo has Kung Fu uploaded to his brain through a computer.
Dr. Who’s EarPods have the power to put their wearer into a trance so they can be controlled remotely, or upgrade them into superhuman Cybermen.
The science fiction community hasn’t yet reached a consensus on whether microchips will be used in the future for hyper-efficient individual identification and tracking, behavior control, or accelerated learning. If I had to choose one of those applications for myself, it would be the latter. Wouldn’t it be nice to learn how to waterski in ten seconds?
Some companies have already started implanting employees with microchips to make identification more efficient. (The microchipping is, of course, voluntary.)
Last summer, Wisconsin-based vending company Three Square Market offered its employees the opportunity to have microchips from a Swedish electronics company—Biohax International—implanted in the skin between their thumb and index finger.
The chip—about the size of a grain of rice—allows employees to be identified via near-field communication, granted access to buildings and computers, and make payments at vending machines. It isn’t GPS-enabled, so employees don’t have to worry about being tracked when they call out sick.
Three Square Market reported that more than half of its employees volunteered to be chipped.
What does this mean for the future of project management?
Imagine sitting at your workstation managing a team of engineers. Your project management software not only lists each employee with a headshot, but icons on a map show you—in real time—where each employee is, what task they’re working on, and how long they’ve been on the clock.
Privacy is certainly a concern, but managers have been able to monitor employee’s company computer use and social media behavior for years.
Tracking employees is one way that microchips can impact project management, but DARPA is working on a project that could have global impact.
The Neural Engineering System Design program, which would build a bridge between the brain and external electronics, could eventually allow humans to directly interface with machines. DARPA says:
Such an interface would convert the electrochemical signaling used by neurons in the brain into the ones and zeros that constitute the language of information technology, and do so at far greater scale than is currently possible.
Practically, this could mean things like cochlear implants that translate any language, artificial eyes that display additional information about what you’re looking at, and cybernetic limbs. In other words: we’re one step closer to real life RoboCop.
3. Video conferencing
Thankfully, we have higher-resolution screens for our video calls these days
The science fiction
In “Star Trek” (the original series), Captain Kirk frequently communicated with friend and foe via video conferencing. In the 1960s, this was mind-blowing technology, even though there was a rudimentary video phone on display at the 1964 World’s Fair.
Since then, everything from “The Jetsons” to “Star Wars” has envisioned video conferencing technology as omnipresent in the future. Even the grandfather of all science fiction films, Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1927), had a video phone.
Ever since the invention of the telephone and video, it hasn’t taken a giant leap of the imagination to put the two together. As Adi Robertson wrote for The Verge, “video calling is one of the oldest and most resilient ideas in science fiction.”
Video conferencing went from a fanciful science fiction concept to indispensable real-life business tool seemingly overnight.
Skype for Business allows presenters to run polls and share the screen with others on their call, while livestreaming allows anyone with an internet-connected computer or smartphone to broadcast across the globe.
For project managers, video conferencing has helped remove barriers separating remote teams and save significantly on meeting travel expenses.
What does the future of video conferencing look like for project management?
Poor communication is the leading cause of failure in almost 40% of unsuccessful projects, making it vital to remove as many communication barriers as possible.
Imagine a video conference in three dimensions, where you’re essentially in a “Star Trek”-style holodeck with your colleagues. But instead of doing battle in an otherworldly jungle, you’re watching an automatically translated presentation while sitting around a virtual conference table.
4. Virtual reality
If virtual reality hurts this much, you’re probably doing it wrong
The science fiction
One of the most visually striking depictions of virtual reality in science fiction is the 1982 Disney film “Tron.” Computer engineer Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges) enters the mainframe and battles the Master Control Program via a loose interpretation of virtual reality.
The next year, “Brainstorm” (starring Christopher Walken) offered a somewhat more realistic but less family friendly vision of virtual reality. The 1990s were a prolific time for virtual reality in science fiction, with films like “The Lawnmower Man,” “Johnny Mnemonic,” and “Virtuosity” hitting cinemas with a polygonal take on the technology.
The common thread running through these disparate films? The idea that the line between virtual reality and actual reality becomes blurred at some point. Are the characters experiencing reality or virtual reality, and when does that distinction no longer matter?
While we may not be strapping on giant headsets and managing projects in a virtual world yet, augmented reality—VR’s baby sibling—is creeping into our everyday lives through apps like Snapchat, Giphy World, and Ikea Place.
At Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2016 in Orlando, Gartner’s Daryl Plummer predicted that in the near future, “Digital experience and engagement will draw people into nonstop virtual interactions.”
What does this mean? It’s easy to imagine walking into a grocery store and having the prices of every product displayed digitally, either on the screen of your phone as you pan the camera across the shelves or via a light headset (like Google Glass) for a head-up display experience.
How does this affect project management? Imagine scanning a facility with a tablet or headset, and having its physical dimensions overlaid on the screen or HUD, or looking at a bank of computer servers and immediately knowing the capacity, life expectancy, and financial value of each asset.
With VR headsets like Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift, and Google Daydream becoming lighter and cheaper, it’s only a matter of time before these AR applications are translated and expanded into full VR. Once they are, you won’t need to be physically present in a given location to have the experience of being there and analyzing its importance to your project.
Virtual reality could also be used to teach project management by allowing students to interact with a demanding product owner and participate in a daily Scrum meeting in a virtual setting where real dollars and jobs aren’t at stake.
Your project management predictions?
Now that AI and virtual reality are part of our actual reality, it’s a good time to imagine what fantastical technologies project managers will be using in the year 2100. Time travel? That would certainly make deadlines less of an issue. Teleportation? Forget about remote teams when physical meetings are just a quick jaunt through space and time away.
What are your thoughts and predictions? Let me know on Twitter @CapterraAC, or share them in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll probably like these other pieces about science fiction and the future of project management:
- Space Project Management: The 4 Best Practices That Can Help Us Get to Mars
- The History of Project Management and Predictions for the Future
- The 5 Biggest Project Management Trends Shaping 2018
- 15 Incredible Agile Project Management Statistics for 2018
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