Essential Reading: Humans Are Underrated

Everything you’re skilled at will one day be done better by technology–if it isn’t already. So says Geoff Colvin, anyway, in his recent book Humans Are Underrated, and he’s got a compelling case. Artificial intelligence like IBM’s Watson is not only becoming more and more proficient at things like sifting through data and logic-based activities like chess or Jeopardy, it’s also starting to outperform humans in creative tasks like composing novels and cooking. There are not yet robots preparing Thai-Jewish Chicken or an Austrian Chocolate Burrito at your neighborhood restaurant, but they’re both dishes with novel flavor combinations and preparations created by Watson. According to people who’ve cooked and tasted them, they’re delicious. It’s only a matter of time before a bot is able to do the concocting and the cooking–no humans required.

What place is there for a chef in the world if a machine is able to create more interesting and tasty dishes?

 Or for a lawyer if a computer can research, argue, and win cases faster and more successfully?

Or a doctor if medical technology can diagnose and treat patients far more effectively than any human specialist or even a whole team of physicians?

In light of what the technology we’ve created is increasingly able to do, the future for human work and value appears troubling.

This isn’t an entirely new worry. When the Industrial Revolution began, technology first undermined artisans. A factory could produce countless guns of good quality far more efficiently than a lone maker handcrafting each one from start to finish. Artisans were increasingly marginalized or out of work, and low-skilled workers transitioned into operating the factory machinery.

Then came the cultivation and spread of electricity. Factories grew larger and machines more complicated, requiring higher-skilled, more educated workers. Low-skilled workers became dependent on an education to become smarter and better skilled in order to stay employed. Most people succeeded in this broad societal change in employment, and the standard of living skyrocketed from 1890 to 1970.

But in the 1980s, the rise of information technology suddenly reduced and decreased the wage of many “medium-skilled” jobs that had arisen and that people had educated themselves to be able to perform over the previous several decades. High-skill and low-skill jobs increased–infotech couldn’t yet do the complex judgment and problem-solving required for high-skilled work, or the physical skills of low-skill labor. Those in the middle were left trying to figure out how to move up or down.

Now, with technology like Watson, we are settling into the fourth great turning point. “Infotech is advancing steadily into both ends of the spectrum, threatening workers who thought they didn’t have to worry.” Whether it’s the sophisticated cognition of a lawyer or the creative, manual effort of a chef, technology is rapidly catching up to and eclipsing so-called high- and low- skill human abilities after knocking out much of the middle-skill in the 80s and 90s.

What will be the place of human beings in society if everything that we do technology does better?

In such a societal shift, there are huge implications for things like dignity, personal growth, and sense of purpose–as well as more practical implications like job security and a living wage.

Is there any hope for humans to retain their humanity?

As Colvin notes, if we want to know if there’s any humanity that can persist into the future it won’t do to fixate on what technology cannot do. We’ve already tried asking that question, and we keep getting proved wrong. Many predicted that technology could never really infiltrate into the human territory of the abilities that make for, say, an excellent doctor or musician. Technology is advancing so quickly that a machine like Watson is already undermining those predictions.

Instead, we need to ask a subtly different, but perceptive and powerful question: “What are the activities that we humans…will simply insist be performed by other humans, regardless of what computers can do?

We are wired for relationship and sociality. We have evolved for rich person-to-person interaction; for complex conversation and emotional entanglement; for creating ideas and problem-solving together; for empathy. Colvin describes it succinctly as “discerning what each other is thinking and feeling, and responding in an appropriate way.” No matter how proficient technology becomes, there will always be activities, vocations, and interactions that we insist happen between humans because of the capacities and cravings that make up who we are as people.

Perhaps at the beginning of this piece you cringed a bit at the thought of a robot preparing your meal for exactly that reason. It doesn’t have the choreography, the emotion, the ineffable humanity, of sitting down at the chef’s table of an award-winning restaurant, or stepping up to a bustling food truck, with an engaging person cooking the food.

There are countless other domains that we will continue to yearn for the social sensitivity of people navigating the experience. The sharing of a heartbreaking medical diagnosis; governance and diplomacy; the education and raising of a child; counseling and friendship; concerts, art galleries, and myriad other artistic endeavors. Even if those activities are aided by advancing technology (which is not necessarily a bad thing), we will almost certainly always hope for and require that there be human-to-human connection involved. It fulfills our deepest needs and desires as humans.

No matter what skills technology encroaches or supersedes, our connection to one another, our empathy, is the future of our flourishing and meaningfulness. That’s a future worth embracing.

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