Prove Your Humanity

Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

Imagine the moment you are about to log into a website. A pesky window pops up: prove your humanity. You perform some massive feat of intelligence, like adding 4 + 3, and you’re in. Thanks, WordPress!

In the workplace of the future, proving our humanity won’t be so easy. And it may be even more difficult to prove why anyone should care that we’re human in the first place.

According to global consulting firm McKinsey (Manyika et al, 2017), with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) software, nearly 50 percent of worker activities can already be turned over to a machine. The consultancy counted 70 entire professions in which 90 percent of job responsibilities can be automated, ranging from mail couriers and bakers to accountants and lab technicians. In 2001 IBM’s Watson beat a human Jeopardy champion, but it wasn’t finished. Now it’s diagnosing cancer and doing complex tax returns. According to PwC (Torlone et al, 2016), nearly 60 per cent of CEOs plan to cut jobs over the next five years because of robotics, but only 16 percent say they plan to hire more people because of robotics.

In Fall 2017, I wrote an article for the New York Times about job automation. I said that we hang our hats on the idea that there are certain professions, such as teaching and caregiving, in which humans could never be replaced by robots because of the level of personal interaction required.

But according to Richard Yonck, executive director and analyst for Intelligent Future Consulting and author of the book Heart of the Machine (Yonck, 2017), we should never say never. ‘Starting in the in the mid-’00s, due to better computer hardware and algorithms, we made some major leaps forward in deep learning. As a result, we’re now developing emotional computing and software programs that are aware of our moods and intentions and are able to respond accordingly.’

In Japan, the rapidly aging population and shrinking workforce have led to significant advances in social robotics. Riken and the Sumitomo Riko Company have released Robear, a nursing robot that looks like a tall, white bear and can lift patients out of bed and help them move. Strong, gentle and nonthreatening, Robear can converse and interact with patients.

In a world where robots can do more and more, where does that leave us a humans? How will leaders build integrated human teams that can compete in a business world with constant evolutions and disruptions while remaining productive, marketable and sane?

I started thinking about this journey when I was 12 years old. Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, I loved reading and watching science fiction with my dad. I was into the Ender’s Game series while Dad was partial to Star Trek: The Next Generation. One day, the two of us drove two towns over for a tour of the World Future Society (WFS) headquarters. Here, we learned predictions about life in the upcoming 21st century. My favourite invention was something called interactive television-a handheld mini-TV that allowed you to choose the rock song you wanted to listen to, or the movie you wanted to watch. In 1988, it was tantalizing to think about getting entertainment instantly, on demand. Gone were the days of keeping the radio on for hours with the hope that the DJ would play the newest Madonna single. I was hooked. In that moment, I decided that I wanted to be a futurist — or someone who makes predictions based on current trends — when I grew up.

Of course, WFS was right. The interactive television was the precursor for the device that every one of you has within a foot of your person — the smartphone. And I was right too: I would become a futurist. That, however, would require me to reinvent myself, just like today’s leaders must if they wish to guide their organizations in the right direction. It would require me to proceed with intention.

Today, I am the futurist I dreamed I’d be, and I’m also a true 21st-century employee. In the last six weeks, I’ve worked for a dozen different clients, I’ve been a member of four virtual teams, and I’ve done two conference calls in the middle of the night. I try to anticipate what my clients will need and consider ways to solve their problems before they even know they have them. I keep my eyes on market developments so that I can pivot instantly if necessary.

When I don’t know how to do something that people are asking for, I take a massive open online course (MOOC). And most importantly, I focus on teaching organizations how to do the same thing — for themselves and for their employees.

The preceding is adapted from Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future by Alexandra Levit ©2018 and published with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

For more information, please visit: www.koganpage.com/humanityworks