Being Human in a Post-Human World

Amid the sweeping technological transformations of the last decades, described as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, the hype around artificial intelligence (AI) has reached new heights. Whilst some see tremendous opportunity ahead, others, such as Stephen Hawkins, Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk warn about a future in which AI will gain the upper hand, plunging humanity into a hopeless competition against machines. Unsurprisingly, the narrative about technology causing universal joblessness – John Maynard Keynes called it technological unemployment – has emerged yet again. Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author of “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”, even foresees a new “useless class”, consisting of “people who are not just unemployed, but unemployable”.

Elon Musk calls AI “biggest existential threat”. Source: CNBC

Meanwhile, some look for the silver lining: Throughout history, tectonic technological advances unilaterally showed that human society is astonishingly adept to adapt. When raw muscle power was replaced by oxen, donkeys and horses, our dexterity gained importance. After the invention of advanced production machines, our intellectual abilities kept us relevant. In general, old jobs were replaced by new jobs. Is universal joblessness therefore nothing more than a figment?

As AI increasingly marginalises our intellect, Harari, and many others, believe that this time might be different. They paint a chilling picture of workplaces characterised by a ruthless competition between humans and machines. I believe this narrative is flawed, as it presumes that human cognition continues to be measured by the same cognitive dimensions as machines, in turn affecting how we design our jobs and workplaces.

Hence, this article calls for a different narrative on an AI-driven future of work. In what follows, I argue that we need to step back and recognise the potential of our innate and unique human abilities as social and emotional beings. I want to show that this will allow us to rethink our relationship with machines and our jobs towards a future in which humans excel in a collaborative, symbiotic relationship with intelligent machines that do not replace but complementand amplifyour abilities, and vice-versa. This in turn will not only make us economically indispensable but also fill our jobs with purpose, so that we will treat work no longer as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. I believe that this new narrative is pivotal for realising long-term opportunities of AI for the benefit of individuals, organisations, and our species.

A Bicycle for Our Mind: Rethinking Our Relationship with Machines

In the wake of the rising impact of AI on our jobs, many predict that the same trajectory towards a jobless future will continue. Even though primarily physical and lower-paying jobs in structured and predictable environments are threatened by AI and automation (about half of total United States employment), more jobs will inevitably follow.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift” – Albert Einstein

This projection, however, presumes that humans and machines (i.e. computers) will continue to compete on the same cognitive dimensions as they have done so far: rational, process-intensive, rule-based thinking. It further assumes that we are creatures who calculate the world through a rational mindset, a paradigm that has been reinforced by modern economists. We established the rational mind as “the golden calf” that our culture “worships” and proclaimed it as one of the great achievements of Western civilisation. “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift”, recognised Albert Einstein. Thus, in a quest to empower human cognitive abilities, we invented machines to extend this faithful servant. Steve Jobs famously called these machines “the bicycles of the mind”, playing into the narrative of computers being a powerful extension of our rational mind.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates: Computers are “a bicycle for our minds” Source: https://apc.io/about/

Even though this was a compelling analogy for the human-machine relationship 37 years ago, computers are now on the verge of rendering the human mind redundant. What has formerly been perceived as an extension is now turning into a competitionon cost and efficiency factors. Thus, employers hire workers only if they are cheaper than machines.

And yet, during all these years, we have failed to realise that this competition does not harvest the full potential of human intellect. Storing and analysing data, recognising data patterns, recollecting and calculating vast amounts of information as quickly and efficiently as possible, conducting highly specialised and repetitive tasks in a structured environment: Machine-efficiency and raw processing power is not what makes us human. Rather, it is our understanding of culture, values, morals, intuition, empathy, creativity, and irrationality that makes us such beautiful creatures and has helped our species to thrive. Thus, despite being depicted as rational thinkers, we are – first and foremost – emotional and social creatures.

Recognising this helps us realise that humans and machines do not compete at all. Steve Jobs’ comparison is significant as he described a collaborative, complementary and amplifying human-machine relationship. Already today, human-machine collaboration proves increasingly successful. For example, Garry Kasparaov, chess grandmaster and world champion, claims to play better when collaborating with a computer. In Siemens’ factories, humans already work alongside intelligent machines – a setup that McKinsey & Company sees as key to future growth. Professor Philipp Theisohn, science fiction researcher and head of the Department of German Studies at University of Zurich, says that a fusion of humans and machines would finally complete us, as it could counterbalance our emotional thinking.

Thus, imagining the future of work, I believe that we would be ill-advised to fight back. Instead, we need to relearn to be more human. For that, it will be absolutely essential to create jobs that allow for this delicate interaction of humans and machines – harnessing the full potential of our species.

Jobs for Humans: Rethinking Our Work

The predicted rate of automation of lower-paying jobs will inevitably force us to think about the role of work in a broader context. If we recognise the aforementioned differences between human and machine intelligence and the resulting potential for mutual collaboration, completion, and amplification, I believe that a large part of society could regain the opportunity to do purposeful work.

“Treat humanity […] as an end and never simply as a means”, stated Kant, German philosopher, claiming our existence to be an end in itself. This raises the question whether work, accounting for a large part of our existence, is an end in itself as well. So far, however, “all cultures thought of work as a means to an end, not an end in itself”, as work has been a necessary means for survival.

A post-work world. Source: The Guardian

Yet, intelligent machines will likely become powerful and capable enough to provide many, if not all the resources necessary for survival. Inevitably, work as we know it today, providing the means for our existence, will gradually cease to exist. Will we therefore become the “new” Athenians of a “post-work” world with computers as the new slaves? Quite the contrary: This post-work world will, arguably, provide the opportunity to rethink our workplaces to create new forms activitiesthat harness the true potential of our innate abilities. How could this play out in detail?


Work of a Future Consultant: an Example

Let’s use the future job of a management consultant as an example and look at it from three different perspectives: “Thinking”, “acting” and “sensing”.

Much of what consultants of the past invested their “thinking” in revolved around analysing data, building data-driven models, structuring information, conducting research, acquiring knowledge, and coordinating administrative tasks. Now, most of this is done by a personal assistant, Frodo, an intelligent machine. He can speak and grasp jokes – not because he understands humour, but because he has learnedthat they are funny. As other intelligent robots, Frodo never tires and is indifferent to recognition, sadness, or joy. Further, as all machines, he sticks to clear rules: the “declaration of machine intelligence”, as it is called, an internal code of conduct for machines. So, what are consultants still doing?

Could this be Frodo? Photo by Franck Veschi

They invest their thinking in strategising, problem-solving, decision making and creative work. Luckily, our ability to think irrationally gives us humans an edge in creativity. It allows us to engage in what Schumpeter calls “creative destruction”– a key ingredient for the creative process. Generally, they deal with things that are uncertain, complex and ambiguous and require intuitive judgement and emotional and contextual awareness. A connection from their brain to the cloud through a so-called “neural link” allows them to instantly access all the relevant contextual information for conducting these judgements. Afterwards, they disconnect again — it literally frees their mind — and Frodo documents and archives the results. Moreover, when deciding, they usually consult Frodo too. He can give me impartial advice based on vast amounts of data and predict the consequences of their decisions with probabilities. As he familiarised himself with their way of thinking, he reminds them of biases and logical fallacies along the way. This can be useful; but especially when decisions concern people, many listen to their intuition.

About 70% of time at work consultatns spend with “acting”. Specifically, they collaborate with co-workers, deal with clients, engage in one-to-one conversations and deliver feedback. As we humans possess an intuition for promising ideas or emerging problems, even though they might appear irrational at first, a large part of our human collaboration revolves around spotting and nurturing these ideas. In meetings (yes, they still exist), intelligent machines objectively assess past issues and present short briefings to get everyone on the same page. This rational assessment, underpinned with various data points, usually helps to avoid heated discussions coloured by our personal values or opinions.

The third perspective, “sensing”, is being empathetic and compassionate — one of our most important innate abilities. To enhance it further, the “neural link” allows co-workers to connect each other’s brains and observe an unfiltered impression of each other’s thoughts — something that a rational machine could not comprehend. It allows them to communicate much more effectively as it prevents the loss of information that occurs when translating thoughts into language. Furthermore, intelligent lenses evaluate facial expressions of people co-workers meet to identify moods and expected behaviour. Frodo rejects all this — in fact, he does not comprehend feelings at all.

Most importantly, the majority of the people at that company and within our society now have purposeful work, filled with collaborative and social activities and uplifting achievements. People who once engaged in repetitive and soulless professions now thrive in social and benevolent endeavours within their community, which demand a great deal of humaneness. Eventually, instead of working for our existence, we exist to work. Similar to our existence, our jobs ultimately became the end in itself and allow us to be human, again.


Towards a New Narrative for a New World

The new narrative: Machines complete humans and vice versa. Source: http://engineering.nyu.edu/events/2012/11/07/co-evolution-humans-and-machines

It is of little use to predict this yet unclear future by looking into a crystal ball. Instead, we need to start to deliberately create it. Economists call it path dependency: The outcome will depend on the path we take. Thus, we require a new narrative that shifts our focus from extension to complementation and amplification of innate human abilities, from competition to collaboration, from work as a means to work as an end in itself. We will need to rethink education, our workplaces, and income and wealth distribution and debate on what truly creates value for our society.

During the first industrial revolution we started to create specialised and repetitive jobs aiming at machine-efficiency. Looking forward, we will only succeed by creating jobs that build on our innate, unique abilities, formed through three million years of evolution. If we do, future workplaces and organisations may thrive on purposeful human-to-human relationships and human-to-machine collaboration, combining our unique abilities, such as intuition, emotional intelligence and empathy, creativity and contextual awareness with rational machine intelligence. By being different from machines, we will gain a sustainable advantage and enlarge the pie for everyone – machines and humans.


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