Monday, October 12, 2015

Are machines making humans obsolete?

The Guardian, Friday 18th September 2015
Suppose that, unlike me, you’re a fresh-faced youngster, just out of education, not yet beaten down by the meaninglessness of human existence, and looking to choose a career. Preferably one that won’t be made obsolete by technology within decades. Factory jobs are out. So is taxi-driving, thanks to driverless cars. But things aren’t looking great for accountants, lawyers or journalists, either; computers already handle the simpler bits of those jobs. Software can mark certain essays with an accuracy approaching that of teachers, and make medical diagnoses more accurately than doctors.
Techno-optimists used to be confident that automation would always create more jobs than it replaced, but now some wonder if the luddites might have been right: when artificial intelligence gets good enough, could we all find ourselves replaced? History is full of people declaring this or that activity too complex for machines, only for machines to prove them wrong a few years later.

Most of this dispiriting picture is true, the author Geoff Colvin agrees in an intriguing new book, Humans Are Underrated, but there is hope. To thrive in the hi-tech future, he argues, we should stop asking what computers will never be able to do, since the answer is probably “nothing”. Instead, we should ask: “What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature, will simply insist be performed by other humans?”

The argument goes like this: over hundreds of thousands of years, our brains have evolved to excel at interacting with other humans, and we’re most fulfilled when we do. There are things we need humans to do, for reasons we can barely articulate. A computer might judge the evidence in a criminal case perfectly, but we still want a human judge to take responsibility for such a weighty decision. Emotion-recognition software might outsmart a therapist when it comes to reading your feelings – that technology is already advanced – but we want to be heard by a human. No matter how well a computer marks essays, school pupils have evolved to respond to inspiring human teachers. And even if a machine could finish writing the remaining Game Of Thrones novels, fans wouldn’t be happy: they need those words to come from one specific human’s head.
Not that the argument’s solely economic. It also helps explain, for example, why face-to-face interaction is so critical for wellbeing: it’s not that online communication’s bad, but that our brains are custom-designed for in-person exchanges, with their multitude of visual and physical cues. Computers, in short, can (and probably will) take over or transform every human job, except one: that of being human.If that’s correct, it means there’s a nub of truth in all that excruciating corporate-speak about training employees to be more empathic, or making brands “more human”. As technology colonises everything else, the most prized skills will be those we wouldn’t want machines to perform, even if they could. We’ll stop being “knowledge workers”, Colvin insists, and become “relationship workers”. It’s a cheesy phrase, but it gets at the point: humans need humanness, so that’s what will retain market value.

No comments: