A New Kind of Techno Optimist

Automation may force us to be better, nicer people  women-at-work-hugging-jpeg

A debate about whether rapid technological advances in artificial intelligence, deep machine learning, biochemical and cyborg engineering, and robotics are overall beneficial or detrimental to society has been raging in the media.

“Techno optimists” assert that advances in these areas will mean far more benefits than losses to society, because they will solve human problems and free humans from having to do boring and dangerous tasks. These folks believe that any jobs lost to automation will be replaced in the long run by newer, better jobs and that, in any case, technological innovation will make everyone’s daily lives healthier, safer, and happier.

“Techno pessimists” believe that relentless technological advances in these areas will mean radical changes to the economic order and massive unemployment and inequality. They believe that new jobs will not replace enough of the jobs at risk for technological displacement and not nearly fast enough to avoid major societal upheaval and chaos. These changes are dramatic and imminent enough that Bill Gates says the government should already be making plans to tax robots in order to fund more human jobs in teaching children and elderly care—jobs that are currently in high demand and for which humans are particularly well suited, but that are not so high paying or prestigious at the moment.

Then there are those who think the whole thing is overblown—that technology won’t change that much, that soon.

In our book, Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Intelligence in the Smart Machine Age, my co-author and I take the pessimistic view of job displacement largely as a given and that the following recent predictions from researchers at Oxford University, McKinsey & Company, and the White House among many others are more likely to happen than not:

  • Tens of millions of human jobs in the United States will be displaced by automation in the next 15 to 20 years, including both traditionally high- and middle-skilled cognitive work (accounting; insurance; law; marketing) and traditionally low-skilled manual work (factories; trucking).
  • The majority of people will soon be working on a freelance, part-time, or contract basis.
  • Peer-to-peer, on-demand commercial transactions such as those through Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and Uber will replace the corporate-centered model across many different industries, thereby massively blurring the lines between professional and personal relationships.
  • Occupations safest from automation include human interaction in the areas of managing and developing other people, healthcare, education, and community service.
  • Job activities least susceptible to automation include the higher-level and flexible thinking involved in expert decision-making, planning, and creative work, and the managing and care of other human beings.
  • The skills at which humans must excel in order to find and keep work are critical, creative, and innovative thinking and social and emotional engagement with other human beings, because those are the unique human skills that complement and cannot be easily replaced by technology.

She is my favourite nurse

All of that is scary to consider, but here’s the thing: if technological displacement means that jobs involving the “care of other human beings” become more valuable and sought after, then I, for one, think that’s a good thing. If the prestige level of and demand for teachers, nurses, and elder care workers rises as the need for lawyers, accountants, and hedge fund managers falls, then I think society will probably be better off for it.

In a world in which AI can outsmart us, we must get better at doing what makes us human: being creative and caring. As we explain in the book, to be employable and master the skills that humans will still be needed to do, we must tap into our evolutionary instincts to connect to and collaborate with our fellow human beings and become more humble, open-minded, and better at listening than our individualistic and competitive, zero-sum culture often encourages us to be.

Call me a techno optimist, but I think all of that is a very good thing.

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