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May 15, 2017

If you thought secretly tracking company morale through Slack was scary, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

Microsoft held its Build event this week in Seattle. It’s similar to big events you’ve seen from the likes of Apple, Facebook and Google where the CEO and other mucky-mucks at the company showcase their latest technology and wares with hopes of goosing sales and brand awareness.

While Microsoft unveiled a wide array of new software and services, one stood out as particularly prescient to employment and the future world of work. And it’s scary as hell. Think 1984 meets Office Space.

Basically, artificial intelligence enables cameras to identify not only you and your fellow coworkers, but items in the environment as well. The example Microsoft gave was a construction site where cameras alert workers to hazardous materials or situations. A jackhammer not stored properly, for example, sends an alert to the foreman’s mobile device.

Automating HR. Chatbots and AI will take over much of what HR does, and the disruption is just around the corner. What will HR do then? See Will We Need HR If We Have Bots?

A dystopian workplace?

It doesn’t stop there, of course. The eye-in-the-sky also alerts the boss to bad behavior or poor performance by the underlings. So, the days of chasing a coworker around the construction site with that jackhammer are over in this dystopian future.

Here’s a video showcasing our AI, micro-monitored future:

OK, I know what you’re saying. “How is a greater level of safety a bad thing?” Admittedly, it’s not. Like most things in life, there’s good and bad. Unfortunately, I see more than protecting a workforce from spilled toxins or keeping a patient in a hospital.

No more privacy

Instead, I see a world where the boss knows everything you do. A world where all privacy is gone. Want to sneak away for lunch with a friend? Not without your manager knowing. And don’t even think about being late. Smoke break? Not a chance. Playing Candy Crush on your phone? Gotcha! Looking for another job? You’re fired.

Ironically, the devices that have given workers a level of freedom, the smartphone, may keep workers under an employer’s thumb like never before. Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant that comes standard with Windows devices was featured.

A demo from the event shows a woman chatting with a Cortana-powered speaker in a set representing her house. Then it reminded the actress that she had a meeting. She hops in her car, where Cortana promptly tells her traffic is going to make her late and notifies her employer as a result and draws her into a meeting that’s already in progress.

On the surface, this may sound great, but do we really want our employer plugged into our home lives and our transportation activities? We already know voice assistants are constantly listening to what you say and indexing everything. You’d better not complain about your boss or gossip about a coworker, because an algorithm could raise a red flag on you as an employee.

Integration with LinkedIn

It also raises questions about how Microsoft could integrate this micro-monitoring technology into LinkedIn, the company it acquired for over $26 billion last year. Every inMail and message you’ve ever sent, job you’ve applied to and article you’ve liked could translate into aiding this kind of workplace monitoring.

The optimist in me hopes there will be a balance and people will want to hold onto a sliver of privacy in the workplace. The optimist in me hopes top talent chooses opportunities with companies who value privacy over those that do not, forcing the pendulum to swing toward privacy. Time will tell, but the trend doesn’t favor the optimist inside.