We Need to Become Exponential Humans (ft. Antony Slumbers)

Antony Slumbers is a globally recognized speaker, entrepreneur, advisor, and writer on proptech and space-as-a-service.
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
August 2, 2023
min read

In this episode of Future Work, we’re joined by Antony Slumbers, a globally recognized speaker, advisor, and writer on proptech and space-as-a-service. 

Antony is a serial entrepreneur who founded and exited several proptech software companies and now consults real estate boards on their transformation, technology, and innovation strategies. 

He writes an influential blog at antonyslumbers.com, is a prolific Tweeter (@antonyslumbers), and teaches the online ‘#SpaceAsAService  - The Trillion Dollar Hashtag’ course.

Find this episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, YouTube, or wherever you consume your podcasts.

This week’s Future Work is sponsored by Coursera
If you want to level up your hybrid and remote leadership game, there’s no better place to start than Gitlab’s How To Manage a Remote Team
To improve your communication skills, check out the University of Toronto’s Communication Strategies for a Virtual Age.
Of course, there are many more free courses to explore on Coursera. Study at your own place, in your own space. 

Human vs. AI

Daan: Antony, you speak a lot about how technology redefines our work. So how is technology redefining how we work? And, most importantly, since A.I. has come along, what roles do humans have to play now and in the future?

Antony: That's a very important question. 

We must understand that there's a paradox about technology that, in many ways, you see the world getting ever more exponentially technological, and you think that we all need to become more tech. But that's bringing a knife to a gunfight. 

Paradoxically, in a highly technological world, we need to become better as humans. We need to become exponential humans in the world of exponential technology because you really got to look at what machines are good at and what a human's good at. Machines are good at anything structured, repeatable, and predictable. 

If you think of any task, anything you do, and think whether it’s structured, repeatable, predictable, could I write an ‘if this than that,’ no matter how complicated, then either it’s already being done by machines or will be done by machines. 

[Read more: How AI Will Transform Management (+ 27 Tools).]

There's no point in doing any structured, repeatable, and predictable work. But even with the rise of ChatGPT for quite a few years at least, humans are good at design, imagination, inspiration, creation, empathy, intuition, innovation, abstract and critical thinking, collaboration, social intelligence, and judgment. 

These are the primary human skills in a world where machines do everything structured, repeatable, and predictable. We need to be thinking about where we add value. 

I always go back to the quotation from Picasso where he said: “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” It's an important way to think about things, even with ChatGPT and the like; we ask the question – as a prompt is just a question. Do this for me or do that for me. And it's the question's quality that elicits the response's quality.

So as time goes on, we need to spend much more attention on these human skills. 

Skills in the Age of AI

Antony: There's one in particular that we should really focus on: abstract and critical thinking. Particularly in a world where soon you are not going to be able to know whether this image is true, whether this text is true, whether this person’s video is true, whether someone says purport to say so, humans are actually going to have to become very good at abstract and critical thinking.

The ability to appraise a situation by a judge and understand whether something is true. How should I think about what I’m seeing?

This is the answer to misinformation. I was at a talk with Sam Altman a couple of weeks ago, and someone asked him: how are you going to stop misinformation? And he said that the solution to misinformation is humans and the human's ability to understand that, hang on a moment, doesn't sound right. And to be suspicious or skeptical, not cynical about what you hear and read, but skeptical.

Is it right that this person is saying this? And you're getting there in many ways. If you think about teenagers or late teenagers or people in their early twenties, they are already very skeptical of social media. 

People who grew up in the first phase of social media might now be mid-twenties. Ten years ago, they were bombarded with all the sites, and they started to understand the downsides of social media. So you talk to an average mid-twenties person, and they’re much more skeptical about social media and much more knowing about, well, I know that's a fake, and that didn’t happen. They can discern these things.

So yes, humanities matter. In a world of abundance, humanity will be the new luxury.

Implementing AI in Startups and Enterprises

Daan: Super interesting to think about that idea that we actually need to be more human now that everything else can be done by AI, by robots, by computers. The things that make us uniquely human are what's still going to make sure that we have value in the future.

I'm also thinking about it from the perspective that when we're talking about A.I., we're still talking about startups like OpenAI and even more obscure startups that have launched products with many opportunities for people to improve their work. 

But you still need to learn about it and sign up for it. This is obviously going to change when Microsoft integrates it into their Office suite as Copilot or when Google integrates it into all of their processes. What will the world look like once AI becomes fully mainstream? 

Antony: It's a very interesting topic. We must remember one thing, particularly about Generative AI, as someone said to me the other day, that it’s not like software. We've grown up with structured, repeatable, or predictable software. It will give you the truth, asking what the date of this battle was. 

But Generative AI hallucinates; it does make things up. And this person pointed out that we might find it much harder to integrate generative AI into enterprises than we thought. Because in an enterprise, particularly you think of a large company that's very process-driven; it's all Six Sigma and trying to get 99.9% efficiency.

It's all processes, and everything has to be true. This is true. That is true. Therefore, you can't suddenly inject something that's a complete fabrication because it will mess up. In some ways, this technology is not embedded in the enterprise in the same way other technologies have been embedded.

Copilot is a good term, rather than autopilot. That word is very deliberate. The point is that this technology is like having an army of interns and a personalized education system at your disposal. 

Let’s say I need to know about X. Can you explain it? I don't understand the concept. Please explain these concepts and take me through them. 

And then you have this army of interns. What do you know about this? What do you know about that? Can you go and read this document? Can you summarize this for me?

There are all these extra capabilities that each of us has to become more knowledgeable and more intelligent. Again, Sam Altman talks about the price of intelligence trending toward zero. 

We can do many things when everyone has access to the best intelligence. But we shouldn't expect the machines to go and do it for us. It is much more of this copilot thing, and that's where growth and productivity will come from. 

Because if you take this technology and just try and apply it to the world as it is, take this technology and automate it, well, then you haven't actually increased productivity much, as opposed to redefining the objective and redesigning the workflow to leverage these new technologies. 

How can we think of new ways of doing things? This business about replacing labor or augmenting labor is really important.

If you look back from the eighties, you look at the technology boom, the I.T. boom since the eighties to now; everyone talks about how it makes it so much faster to do X, Y, Z. But funnily enough, productivity across the globe, particularly in the Western world, has been pretty terrible since the 1980s.

In the bad old days of the seventies and the sixties, there was 3-4% growth across Europe and the US. Growth in the US and Europe since the 1980s has been lucky to hit 2% over the last decade; certainly, it's been less than 1% across Europe. So we are applying all this technology to a world but not creating very much.

Will AI Improve Productivity?

Daan: Does it then mean that we can work less? Is applying all this technology just meaning that, you know, we do less menial work, we do less of the small little things that an army of interns, especially one that never gets tired, I will never say no, can solve for us. Therefore we have to work less. But therefore, as humans, we're less productive. 

It's always been a myth that we will ever actually work less. 

Yesterday someone said, " Well if I'm hiring someone and they used to be able to do ten tasks a day, but now with the new technology, they could do 20 daily tasks, well, what happens?

Do I change their terms and say you will have to do 20 per day? The fundamental way to think about all of this stuff is genuinely how we can incorporate this technology to enable us to be X times better. 

We don't want to be just 10% better, and a lot of automation just makes things a few percent better and essentially just rearranges who gains out of it: does labor gain out of it, or does capital gain it? But what we should be doing, which is the interesting thing about the copilot idea, is thinking about what I could do with these technologies that I couldn't before. 

Don't digitize or AI the past; you've got to rethink what you can do now that you couldn't do before. Because that's the only way we'll get more productivity out of this stuff. Otherwise, if we go the route of automating everything, we will get nowhere. 

Daan: Harvard Business Review just did a series on Generative AI, and they talk about it from different kinds of perspectives, from company culture, from strategy, from productivity.

And the common thread throughout those conversations was about what companies do with this. It is really easy for us as individuals to say let me try out this tool and let me not join a meeting anymore because I can send my meeting bot and some of the other applications we discussed.

But for companies to implement this as an additional layer or benefit because a big software provider like Microsoft puts it natively into the tools. That's one thing. The real opportunity will be in completely rethinking. But how many companies in the world can really rethink how they work and even the product or services they offer?

And that's where the companies will start experimenting and working with AI early on and build more of that muscle, and AI fluency may benefit. What do you think? 

Antony: That's absolutely true. We often believe everyone's like us and can adopt things the same way as we do.

But certainly, my world's full of solo-entrepreneurs or small businesses who, as you say, can easily adopt something and say we're just going to do this soon. As you get up to a large scale, it becomes much harder. 

A very good technology analyst group, Benedict Evans, always repeats the point that most enterprises today implement technology that startups were using ten years ago. It takes a long before something becomes productized enough to be used across the enterprise. 

Daan: I just heard an interview with Rory Sutherland, who was basically saying the same thing, which is it's not A.I., which is the big breakthrough technology this year; it's Zoom; it's video calls. 

Antony: Yeah, absolutely. You should always listen to Rory Sutherland; he is excellent.

It's an interesting thing to think of, and this goes back to my first point about human capabilities; we actually need more people across all sizes of businesses to think much more like startups and smaller businesses. 

So that everybody thinks, how can I do my little cog in the wheel better? Rather than waiting for this top-down process to permeate its way down the system, the entrepreneurial company to scale. 

And everyone needs to be imbued with the capabilities new technologies offer. Even in big companies, to rethink processes because big companies are atomizing anyway. So, the percentage of contractors that big companies use goes up yearly and is already well into double digits.

[Read: Never again just one job. The rise of fractional work, gig economy jobs, and talent marketplaces.]

Small Companies and Thinking Entrepreneurially

Antony: In some way, it’s the Ronald Coase thing of what's the ultimate company? Well, it's about 150 people. How many people do you need within the company to do everything a company needs to do but doesn't get so big that it starts to become sclerotic? 

There's a huge amount to be said that what we need to do with this technology is a massive reeducation process of everybody in the workforce. There is a genuine potential problem of this technology wiping out many jobs, and it could do for a long time. 

And people talk about, oh, well, you know, in the 19th century, everyone started working on the farm. By the end of the century, everyone was working in towns, and, you know, everyone was okay. Yes. But there was a thing called the Engel’s pause, where for about 40 years, everyone was worse off. 

And we could have this new ability to create more. So the general supply becomes higher because everyone can do more stuff. But we haven't actually built the demand for it yet. And if there's more supply than demand, prices, and labor wages will go down, and we're in trouble.

We need a society of individuals, even those with a very corporate background, who actually think much more entrepreneurially. And think in terms of, well, I got my own interns and education system, how do we make the most of it? So there's a massive educational program to go through across the board.

Look, for example, at how many senior managers are missing out on hybrid work because they're not thinking about it properly and are not trying to think about it. So there, it's not a case of all the leaders getting there and the beginners don’t. Frankly, no one really gets this.

And so we all have to change how we think about creating a bigger pie. How do we use all this stuff to augment and try and get away from the idea of technologies that automate things? We need to be augmenting, not automating. It's a complicated HR problem here.

Daan: The CEO of IBM recently said that having people do routine tasks that I can do is not even an option. We need this technology to automate and remove mundane work so that we can focus on higher-value work. And that's hopefully where we will end up.

Hybrid Remote Work and Rethinking Work

Daan: We could talk for another hour about AI. But you did mention my other big keyword, hybrid, and linked to that, remote. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on hybrid remote work. Obviously, you have a background in real estate and proptech. How are those new working models changing the other part of the future?

The fundamental point here is whatever anyone says; we are not going back to 2019. During COVID, we learned that some of the trends that were happening anyway could be pushed a lot harder, and the world of work fundamentally changed.

This varies across the world depending on a range of factors. Certainly, in Europe and North America, all businesses learned that remote working works. So we learned that for 70% of people, remote working, i.e., not being in a central office, functioned perfectly well. 

But we also learned what works well remotely and what we would like to do with others. Employees, in general, have developed a much stronger idea of what enables them to be productive and what enables that team to be productive.

The difficulty is that when we were all in the office, the business could function, and when we were all home, business could function. 

Now we got this situation where we don't know whether people are in the office, at home, in a third space, or anywhere. And many companies are messing this up fundamentally because they do not appreciate that you cannot run a hybrid company based on the same workflows and operating procedures as an office-centric company.

So if your whole system is designed around everybody in the office, and then you try and do that hybrid, that won't work. To make companies work at their maximum, we must pay more attention to the individuals. So what are individuals' and teams' wants, needs, and desires? How do they match the corporate ethos and what we're trying to do? 

And then what type of products and services do they need to enable them to be as happy, healthy, and productive as possible? It's really important to put these things together. The most productive people are likely to be people who are relatively happy and pretty healthy; it enables them to be more productive. 

We really need to spend a lot more time understanding what enables individuals to be as happy, healthy, and productive as they can be.

What do they need? When do they need to be with other people? When do they need to be on their own? What type of real estate do they need? What type of spaces do they need? What type of software do they need? What type of hardware do they need?

[Read: It's Time To Completely Rethink the Workplace Experience (With Corinne Murray, ex RXR, WeWork, Gensler, founder and CEO of Agate]

And we really need to think much more about our companies. Companies are much more complicated than we think. We simplify them by saying; this company just does that. 

But there's all this stuff happening underneath, and we need to pay a lot more attention to the human needs of people and really delve into what enables someone to be productive. It’s great stuff, but frankly, not enough people are currently doing it; I would say that a maximum of 40% of companies are approaching this from a quality management point of view.

If you look at the number of companies actually doing what some of your writing says, you need to do these six things. How many of them are actually being done? 

Daan: It's obviously a low number. McKinsey just released a new paper, one of the authors being one of our connections Phil Kirschner, looking into what the best remote and hybrid companies should be doing and seeing that even advanced companies are not checking all the boxes.  

There's something in there that is like companies are extremely difficult organisms where there's so much happening at once that it's really not that easy to say, oh, we know we should be better in the way that we design our employee experience, our workplace experience, and then actually do is right there always seems to be so much in the way.

From your talking to companies and from your observations, what do you think causes this?

Antony: It’s recency bias, isn't it? We like the world as it is, we have our own operating procedures, and we don't like when they become completely muddled up. This has many factors, but it’s generally an attitudinal thing.

Is this a learning company? What are our aspirations for this company? What is our north star? And a lot of companies don't have the solidity of purpose that enables them to filter down through everything that this is what we're trying to do. And there are always lots of barriers to doing things.

Increasing Competition and Superstar Companies in the Age of AI

Antony: The incentive and the requirement to do much more now will be more apparent quicker because you will get companies within your industry, startups, who fully lean into how we operate as a hybrid organization and what software and services we need.

We have no legacy, so we're going to start now. And if you were starting a company in your business now, how much of what you do today would you do going forward and why? Often that doesn't matter because no one else pushes the envelope so much. 

But one of the things you definitely will see with all these new technologies is that the impact of them is going to be quicker than some other technologies because we talked before about what happens when electric engines came into steam-powered manufacturing, but it actually took 40-odd years for electric motors to really make a big productivity difference. 

But a lot of the technologies we're looking at now, you can just bolt them on straight away. You don't have to reconfigure everything to use these technologies completely. So in many places, your competitors can be two, five, or ten times more productive than you in particular tasks.

And then they're going to have really distinct competitor advantage. And you're going to find that the difference between high-performing companies and the average, let alone the bottom, will increase. 

You’ll have superstar companies that can be big ones, but they can be medium-sized; they can be small that really thought through the processes that enable humans and machines to work together better and are going to be massively competitive. That's going to be a real shock to a lot of companies.

They're not competing with someone who’s just a little better. They're competing with someone who's dramatically better. So the incentives and the motivation to actually stop and say, hang on a moment, this is clearly not working. 

And the answer to this new hybrid world not working well for us is not to say, let's mandate three days a week back and back in the office because that is operating at the macro level where you need to operate at the micro level. 

It’s thinking, hang on a moment; a serious digital transformation and change strategy needs to be adopted now because we'll get behind quickly, and then we'll be in trouble.

The Importance of Experience Design 

Daan: A lot is changing. One of the things we talked about online is even something as simple as going back to the employee experience and when you're in the office in the context of people talking about the four-day workweek. 

And you said, well, it doesn't matter. Whether you work four or five days or as a solopreneur, you work seven days. At the end of the day, you need to do good work. So, there are so many things that will change anyway in the way that we work. 

Antony: You use the word essay experience there, which is really important. If you can break down the experience of working with your company or the experience of working in your company or the experience of dealing with your company, what's the experience of customers interacting with our company? What's the experience of individuals working with our company?  What’s the experience of stakeholders of other companies that we work with?

This whole thing around experience design is really important but complicated, a multifaceted problem. It is really interesting if you look at it from the real estate world. How much can real estate impact the experience, how much can they do things with a company, and how much does a company need to do on its own?

There are certain ways that real estate has a big impact on the experience. The right type of spaces for the right purposes, and we can create better environmental conditions and nicer places. But We can't make a bad company good, but we can work closely with our companies. How can we work with you to make the experience of coming into our building to see you better? It applies throughout everything. 

Experiencing, again, is all about augmentation or automation. Yes, sometimes automated, but really experience is an augmenting process. Just how do we make that better? 

And again, it needs to be something every individual is involved in. You can't impose change on a company, and you can't impose experience on a company; it needs to be something that comes from the top down and the bottom up.

Change Management, Microsoft, and Intel

Daan: I like that idea. It has to be solved at all levels, but it must also come from the company that makes an effort, but also; everyone on their own is going to think maybe a bit differently about the role that they have and the role that they want to take within a company. Both are hard to implement, but both have to happen simultaneously for things to change.

And the reality is that most companies cannot just change overnight. They cannot just say we will become a totally different company because we saw how a certain startup approached hybrid work or how a startup is practicing remotely. You cannot just apply that to a large organization; it has to come from both sides.

Antony: A company worth looking at in terms of this, a really huge company, is Microsoft. So Microsoft, for decades, one of the most profitable companies in the world, made endless amounts of money out of Windows. They were completely modeled around Windows, certainly throughout Gates's time there.

And then Ballmer took over, and the company went nowhere because he was still incredibly Windows focused. Windows was everything. All the other things they did came back to, yes, but how does that affect Windows? 

And then you get Satya Nadella, who's completely transformed this massive company. And Windows, which always used to be at their events, the number one thing they talk about, now it's somewhere on day two. He's completely changed the company to mainly based around the cloud; Windows isn't so important. But all the businesses around cloud and now with AI, he's done an extraordinary job changing that company's mindset.

If you Google Nadella and Microsoft strategy, there's some fantastic stuff; he's done a lot of interviews explaining how he's approached it. And Nadella is really interesting because obviously, you know, it's a tech company. So these are very left-brain people; even though the left-brain thing is a myth, people know what we mean about that.

But he is incredibly human-centric, his policies are incredibly human-centric, and he's really put humanity back into the company. And they're an incredible role model as opposed to either you look at someone like Intel. It used to be Windows and Intel, a Windows Machine with Intel inside. And Intel has completely missed the boat on mobile chips.

And now look at Nvidia, the first chip company that’s a trillion company. That really should have been Intel, but they completely messed up their transformation. 

Daan: So we're back at the Innovator's Dilemma. I totally take your point; Microsoft is a fantastic case study. Obviously, that doesn't happen overnight. I remember when I worked on IBM back in my advertising days, we always talked about IBM becoming from one big oil tanker to a thousand little ships so they could make the adjustments they needed.

And I do agree, Satya Nadella, in most of his interviews, always speaks maybe about technology, but always from the human’s perspective, and seems to have specifically a very keen interest in making work more human again, letting AI do the work that we don't have to do or that we really shouldn't be doing because it can be trained, it can be automated.

As you said, it's repeatable and systematic, and he has that perspective and changed the culture from within. They couldn't have landed on this big A.I. play if they wouldn't transition to the cloud and if they wouldn't go for a subscription model versus what they were doing, making a lot of money upfront, getting people to pay $150 for a box that had a CD-ROM with Windows in it. So many steps, and being able to make a transition is an incredible story. 

Making Beautiful Things

Speaking of incredible stories, we could talk for an hour more and have more stories to share, but we have come up at the end of our time. To close out this wonderful conversation. Is there one big thing you want to leave people with at the end of this conversation?

Antony: Well, this is back to my hobby horse. I'm really hoping that in the future, particularly in the technology industry, we will see paying more attention to technology that makes a difference to the world. I talk a lot about the United Nations' sustainability goals, and how much technology is aimed at sorting out these sustainability goals, how much technology is pointed at solving climate change or mental health.

The world is so full of really, really big problems, and I'd like to pay a lot more attention to dealing with the big problems rather than let's go and build the 25th grocery delivery app. 

And so what I'd actually like on, and I have a strangely an art background, is I'd like a big billboard to the line from John Keats in 1880 and say the thing of beauty is a joy forever and underneath it say, so build a beautiful world, go on, try.

We talk a lot about people having a purpose, and we've talked a lot about people having agency, even within bigger companies. But fundamentally, if you say, well, what is my aim? I want to make something more beautiful. Go on, try that. 

Daan: I love it. Okay. We couldn’t close on a better note than making beautiful things.

Antony, thank you so much for being on. We'll put all your details in the show notes so people can navigate toward your LinkedIn, Twitter, and website and read more of your wonderful writing. Thanks so much for being on today.

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Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.