Human Flourishing in the AI Age — We Need A New Story

Edward D Hess
Nov 27, 2018 · 8 min read

Over the next 10 years, advancing and converging technologies will be capable of transforming us, Homo Sapiens, into Techno-Homo Sapiens. We will be able to imbed technology inside of us that materially extends our brain power and biologically extends our life. Over time, we could split into two races — those who choose or have the opportunity to become Techno-Homo Sapiens and those who remain Homo Sapiens.

And over the next decade or two, it’s highly likely that artificial intelligence/machine learning and smart agile robots will automate billions of jobs around the world and will perform many of today’s work tasks. Work as we know it today will not exist for most people, and those who do work will do so only as long as they can stay relevant by performing tasks that advancing technology can’t do.

From a cognitive perspective, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman recently opined that with enough data, he believes that there will be no human cognitive task that a computer will not be able to do.

And technology will become integrated into all areas of our lives. Through artificial Intelligence and machine learning, technological systems will be able to learn through self-teaching. Virtual and augmented reality will allow humans to go to new worlds and experience life while sitting at home. Genetic engineering will allow humans to design their children. Global connectivity coupled with Big Data will facilitate cloud-based industrial ecosystems that will consolidate power economically and politically in a small group of global companies and countries. We will be able to create and transplant our biological organs; grow our food easily and cheaply; and print our clothes and artifacts at home or in small local additive manufacturing hubs.

This is not science fiction. The arc of technological innovation is pretty well set. What will it mean for us? Technology will transform how we live and how and if we work. The impact of technology on our society will be in many ways far broader and more challenging than the Industrial Revolution was for our ancestors.

We Need New Stories

Advancing technologies will require new global stories about work, economic growth, education and upward social mobility. Likewise, advancing technologies will require the United States to create new societal about Work, Education, the American Dream, and our “survival of the fittest very individualistic” Culture.

Many Americans have “defined” ourselves by what we do — our work. Some of us get joy from our work. For many of us, work is the way to a better economic life. For some, work dignifies the human existence. Work underlies the American Dream — it is through work that people have been able to achieve upward social and economic mobility.

In a world of limited work, how will we define ourselves? What will become of the American Dream? Without work and upward economic mobility, how will people find purpose, meaning, and happiness in their lives? How will we define human success?

Work as we know it today will not be available to everyone. How do we as a society adapt to that reality? What kind of social safety net will we adopt? How will we not become a society with even more extreme income and wealth inequality than we have now? What kind of education system do we need to have to prepare students and adults for the coming world that will be so different than the Industrial Revolution model upon which our public education system was built?

As work as we know it becomes less available, we will need to focus on a different kind of work. We humans will need to engage in Inner Work — working on becoming the best person and the best member of our community that we can become.

Our current societal story of human advancement is based primarily on extreme individualism, survival of the fittest, conspicuous consumption, unsustainable extraction of Earth’s resources, unrealistic exceptionalism, and Caucasian male supremacy. Over the last 40 plus years, we have in many ways lost our way. As a result, we have become, in essence, a virtue-less, soulless, heartless society driven by the competitive pursuit of money, more things and internal competition.

We have become a divided country motivated by competition not compassion; short-termism not stewardship; and individualism not the Common Good.

What does the data say? The United States has the highest levels of income inequality since the Gilded Age; very low levels of upward social mobility; a drug epidemic; high prison population per capita; racial divisiveness; climate change; outrageously expensive higher education; and a dysfunctional political system dominated by campaign contributions. Some facts:

· When compared with students in other advanced countries, U.S. 15-year-olds ranked in the middle of the pack in science, math, and reading (Pew Research Center, Feb 15, 2017).

· U.S. enrollment in early childhood education by age three was 38% below the OECD average in 2016 (Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD.org).

· Today’s real average wage for U.S. citizens has the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago (Pew Research Center, August 2018).

· Income inequality has increased steadily between the rich and poor since the 1970s (Pew Research Center, July 12, 2018).

· Since 1990, obesity in the United States has increased 157%, with 30% of adults now obese. (AmericanHealthRankings.org)

· Among 35 OECD countries, the United States is 29th in infant mortality and 26th in life expectancy, while being the highest spender on healthcare as measured by percentage of GDP (AmericanHealthRankings.org).

· According to Professor Raj Chetty of the Equality of Opportunity Project, the probability that a child born to parents in the bottom 1/5 of income distribution making it to the top 1/5 is only 7.5% in the United States as compared to 13.5% in Canada, 11.7% in Denmark, and 9% in the United Kingdom. Upward mobility in the United States has been flat for 45 years, and poverty in the United States takes nearly 10 years off one’s lifespan from age 40.

And all of the above is before the impact of the advancing technologies that will displace tens of millions of jobs in the United States. Yes, technology will create new jobs but the question is whether the displaced workers have the capabilities to do those new jobs. And remember, technology will continue to advance taking over even more job tasks on its march to cognitive singularity. Work as we know it today will not exist for many people.

We as a society need a new story.

We need an ideal that every person can identify with.

We need an ideal that is aspirational for those who have work and those who don’t.

We need an ideal that enhances community not competition.

We need a story that brings out the best in ourselves and us as a society.

That story cannot be one based on extreme individualism and “survival of the fittest” if we want to maintain our democracy and place in the world as a leader.

Technology & Antiquity

Maybe our new societal story is a story based in antiquity and spirituality: humanity’s search for human wisdom. Maybe as technology and science continue to advance, the answer to how we can find purpose, meaning, and happiness in our lives can be found in a story that combines learnings from Antiquity (e.g., Buddhism, Stoicism, Native American philosophy, and the virtues of the great religions of the world) along with learnings from modern science that have illuminated what will make us unique in a world of very smart technology.

Our Uniqueness as a Species

Maybe the new story is about human uniqueness and becoming our best selves. Maybe the new story is also about how we help each other find meaning, purpose and happiness. Instead of an individualistic “survival of the fittest” culture, we create a “Community” culture because just like our ancestors the Hunter-Gathers, we will be more successful in Communities with others than “hunting” alone.

Maybe humanity’s answer to technology is The Journey to One’s Best Self. That Journey could be all about developing our uniqueness as human beings in ways that lead to a happy and meaningful life in a world that will continually change as technology advances.

What makes us unique as compared to technology? Consider these questions:

Will technology be able to imagine? To dream?

Will technology be able to emotionally love?

Will technology have the innate curiosity to seek out the wonders and awe of life?

Will technology have innate intent, purpose, and desire to explore and discover in the pursuit of knowing?

Will technology be able to emotionally connect and communicate with animals? Spiritually connect with nature?

Will technology have the ability to advance humanity by continually seeking answers to these questions: Why are we here? How do we live in harmony with each other and with nature?

Will technology have compassion or empathy or be caring?

How do we human beings optimize our uniqueness? The answer to that question may well determine whether we as human beings transcend our current level of humanity alongside technology or whether we become technology’s chimpanzees.

How we adapt over the next decades to the transformational changes brought about by technology and science depends in large part on what our societal story becomes and whether that story can be meaningful and aspirational to every person if they so choose to embrace it.

A New Story: The Journey to One’s Best Self

The Journey to One’s Best Self is a lifelong journey. It can be every person’s lifelong job. It is a daily job that requires working on one’s self every day. It involves an internal journey to Inner Peace and an external focus on Oneness.

The Journey begins with gaining a better understanding through the latest science of how our minds work consciously and subconsciously and how our emotions are integrally linked with our mind and our body so that we can take ownership of our choices and our responses to what life throws at us.

The objective will be to become more aware, more primed for continual learning, and more concerned with seeking to live a virtuous life through high emotional engagement with other human beings and with the world in ways that make a positive contribution to humanity rather than just in ways defined primarily by money, consumption or that lead to unsustainable extraction of the Earth’s resources.

Philosopher Aristotle

Finding Inner Peace is the same journey that the great ancient Eastern and Western philosophies and the great religions of the World have embraced for thousands of years. Oneness is a spiritual journey embracing the awe and wonder of life and the environment and seeking to be part of something bigger than self — to be a force for good as part of connecting to something bigger than ourselves and making a difference in our own way in our community. Oneness is a community approach not an individualistic approach. It is being part of and contributing to the Common Good.

Finding Inner Peace and Oneness will be part of our work. That can be everyone’s work. That can be how humans find meaning, purpose, and happiness in a world dominated by continually advancing technologies.

In the coming decades, what will matter most will be our hearts; our souls; and our commitments to each other to work for a better society for all: The Common Good.

That will require social justice; virtuous behavior; and mastering self so we can move more towards Inner Peace and Oneness in a manner that can save us, save others and save our Planet.

It all begins with you. I invite you to join The Journey to Your Best Self.

Edward D Hess

Written by

Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the UVA Darden School of Business.

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