For humans to survive the automation revolution, we need to double down on our humanity.
The argument goes like this: Artificial intelligence is getting better and better at automating things that humans do. Not just repetitive tasks like assembling parts in a factory, but complex tasks that have traditionally been the domain of humans. Pretty soon, these machine agents will take all the jobs. Humans need not apply.
Weve seen this movie play out beforeand after a gritty fight, we won. The advent of agriculture put hunters and gathers out of business. Then industrial farming put farmers out of business. But each time technology ate one type of jobs, new ones appeared to take their place. Human ingenuity did its thing, we adapted, and we survived to live (and work) another century.
But, say the naysayers, this time is different. Were not talking about dumb machines programmed to do very specific taskswere talking about AIs that learn and get better by watching us and parsing our data for patterns. Globally networked AIs that learn and cooperate with each other will be very powerful, according to author and futurist Yuval Harari. In order to replace most humans, he says, the AI wont have to do very spectacular things.
I do not buy into that version of the future, and here are some reasons why.
AI is smart, but it really isnt as smart as we think. Its true that AI is getting better at tackling complex problems, but its equally true that AI is still not very good at doing many of the things associated with human jobs.
Automation will take away the parts of our jobs we dont like and leave room for more meaningful work.AIs have gotten pretty good at a believable facsimile of humanity in tightly controlled situationslike scheduling meetings. But a general-purpose AI that truly understands you and can respond with creativity and empathy, like the android Ava from Ex Machina? Not so much. AI isnt very good at jobs that require creativity, empathy, critical thinking, leadership, artistic expression, and a whole host of other qualities we traditionally think of as human. Which is why, according to Michael Chui of the McKinsey Global Institute, entire jobs or industries wont often be automated away.
Rather, automation will release humans from the need to perform specific tasks. Those will mostly be non-creative and non-personal tasks that can be broken down into relatively predictable parts. These are chores you didnt want to do to begin with. A lot of people arent hired to schedule meetings, submit receipts for reimbursements, or book flights, anywayfor a lot of folks, theyre just a dreadful set of tasks that came along with your otherwise pretty exciting job.
As venture capitalist Marc Andreessen points out, theres a subtext to the-robots-are-taking-our-jobs argument that is rarely discussed: It presupposes that humans are not smart enough to think up new industries and jobs.
But when industrialization killed the agriculture jobs that employed almost three quarters of the population, people dreamed up new ways to keep fellow humans working. We crisscrossed the country with highways. We took to the skies in flying machines. We built computers. We birthed entire industries around entertainment, healthcare, and education.
I have more faith in humans, and I have yet to see any real evidence to support the pessimism. As Andreessen says, people 100 years ago would marvel at the jobs we do today. The optimist in me finds it difficult to imagine why it will be any different 100 years from now.
AI can seem dystopian because its easier to describe existing jobs disappearing than to imagine industries that never existed appearing, tweeted Box CEO Aaron Levie. Hes right. Theres just no compelling reason to bet against humans when the past 200 years of history shows that were pretty damn good at adapting to technological change.
Not only havent we reached our full potential, but AI can help us reach higher. The debate between artificial intelligence (machines replace us) vs intelligence augmentation (machines help us) has been raging for decades. One side wants to engineer humans out of the equation, while the other thinks the role of machines is to help people perform better.
AI will make us better at our jobs, and better at being human.But that debate misses the point. The two ideas arent mutually exclusive. Its true that AI can do certain things far better than humansIve staked my entrepreneurial future on that. But its also true that when AI starts doing those things, it will make us better at our jobs, and better at being human.
Take a job in sales, for example. Right now, a sales assistant likely spends a lot of time doing things that could be automated: prospecting for and qualifying leads, sending follow-up emails, updating Salesforce, building reports, etc. Once all thats taken over by intelligent machine agents, whats left for you as a salesperson? Its the emotional and creative stuff. Youll spend your day building relationships and serving your clients with creative solutions to their problems. By freeing you from the mundane tasks you used to have to do, often grudgingly, AI will let you focus on things that form the core of your job: the stuff that only you, a human, can do.
This is already happening. Lets stick with the sales example. My companys AI assistant, Amy, removes the tedious task of scheduling meetings from your plate. A sales-specific assistant like Tact automatically captures sales data, reducing administrative load, and then Troops.ai automates the process of organizing it in Salesforce. When it comes time to communicate with leads, Crystal builds personality profiles based on social-media use and suggests ways to personalize your messages. These AI assistants are helping salespeople today by augmenting their existing skills and allowing them to focus on the human side of the job.
One implication of all this is that for humans to succeed in the AI-powered future, we need to double down on our humanity. Technical skills will no doubt remain important in the future of work, but as AI allows us to automate repetitive tasks across many industries, these will in many cases take a back seat to soft skills. Communication, emotional intelligence, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and cognitive flexibility will become the most sought-after abilities. To prepare for that future, we need to emphasize developing higher-order thinking and emotional skills.
While our formal education system catches up to the shifting definition of human intelligence, here are three basic ideas for improving your prospects in the future of work.
I see a bright future for humans. In fact, I believe there will be plenty of challenging work for humans because of AI, not in spite of it. I build AI agents for a living, but when it comes to creativity and innovation, Ill continue to bet on humans. Well come through with new ideas, new industries, and new ways to keep ourselves busy and productive, this time buttressed by AI helpers. Our imagination will carry us forward. It always does.
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