What Does it Mean to be a Person of Value in a Golden Age of Technology?

“What I urgently want you to understand is that we’re entering an era in which the skills that make you valuable are not only changing—they comprise a fundamentally different kind of skills from those that have made people economically valuable up to now. As the economy is transformed, some people will do great, and plenty of others will suffer. The winners will be those who conceive of skills and value in a fundamentally new way, different from what we’re used to.” -Geoff Colvin

In How to Be More Valuable Than Machines, Geoff Colvin begins with a fundamental question: “A few years from now, what will you do better than a computer?”

In order to sidestep the protests of those who underestimate the almost frighteningly increasing potential of computers to replace humans, Colvin gives several examples of instances in which machines will be outperforming humans at an impressive rate while producing those results at only a fraction of the cost. From their ability to  “prepare, cook, and serve a hamburger” to their ability to “identify and cut out cancerous tissue during surgery”, robots are breathing down our necks in the already competitive spaces where we work and seek opportunity.

Our natural reaction to this phenomenon is to identify skills that we imagine will forever elude the domain of technology. If we can just come up with a list of things that only humans can possibly do, surely we’ll be safe. Colvin warns us against this line of reasoning:

In trying to figure out how humans will add value as technology gallops ahead, we’ve mostly been looking in the wrong place. We ask what kind of work a computer will never be able to do. While that seems like common sense, the lesson of history is that it’s dangerous to claim there are any skills that computers cannot eventually acquire. The trail of embarrassing predictions goes way back—computers would never be able to translate languages decently (Google does it well and is getting better every day, for free) or play chess above a mediocre level (ask Garry Kasparov) or drive a car.

The pattern is clear. Extremely smart people note the overwhelming complexity of various tasks, including some like driving that people handle almost effortlessly, and conclude that computers will find mastering them terribly tough. Yet it’s just a matter of time until the feat is accomplished, often less time than anyone expects. Year after year, we reliably commit the same blunder of underestimating what machines will do.

Instead of trying to figure out how to stay ahead of machines, we should get creative with the process of catering to our inherent human biases. That is, we should identify those things we would rather have human beings do even if technology can do them better. This is the arena where our greatest value lies:

A better strategy is to ask, What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature, will simply insist be performed by other humans, even if computers could do them? We are above all social beings, hardwired from our evolutionary past to equate personal relationships with survival. No connection can be more powerful. We want to work with other people in solving problems, tell them stories and hear stories from them, create new ideas with them, because if we didn’t do those things on the savanna 100,000 years ago, we died.

Colvin argues that the most valuable skills in the future will not be the ability to write code, operate machines, or troubleshoot technologies; instead it will be the ability to look another person in the eye, the ability to make art, the ability to intimately relate to the experience of being human. Although many contemporary understandings of productivity are based on a machine-like quality of productivity, the productivity of the future must be modeled after our capacity for empathy. The future will belong not to those who can build machines, but to those who can build relationships.

the meaning of great performance has changed. It used to be that you had
to be good at being machine-like. Now, increasingly, you have to be good at being a person. Great performance requires us to be intensely human beings. To put it another way: Being a great performer is becoming less about what you know and more about what you’re like.

The emerging picture of the future casts conventional career advice in a new light, especially the non-stop urging that students study coding and STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, math. It has been excellent advice for quite a while; eight of the ten highest-paying college majors are in engineering, and those skills will remain critically important. But important isn’t the same as high-value or well-paid. As InfoTech continues its advance into higher skills, value will continue to move elsewhere. Engineers will stay in demand, it’s safe to say, but tomorrow’s most valuable engineers will not be geniuses in cubicles; rather they’ll be those who can build relationships, brainstorm, collaborate, and lead.

As a changing economy revalues human skills, it seems logical to see the trend as the latest step in a long progression: For centuries people have improved their living standards by mastering new skills that a new economy rewards. But the skills that are becoming most valuable now, the skills of deeply human interaction, are not like those other skills. Learning to be more socially sensitive is not like learning algebra or how to operate a lathe or how to make a well-functioning blog in WordPress. Those skills, and virtually all the skills that ever-changing economies have rewarded in the past, are about what you know. The skills that become increasingly valuable as
technology advances are about what you’re like.

I think Colvin is half-right here. I agree that society tends to overemphasize the value of technical skills at the expense of skills like the ability to empathize, network, resolve conflict, and build social capital. I’m always baffled to see how often people are told things like “learn how to code” and how infrequently they’re advised to do things like learn how to sell. So I think Colvin is right here. As more and more of our technical skills become outsourced to technology, our ability to perform in those areas will become less valuable. Where I have my doubts about Colvin’s thesis is his premise that there are certain tasks we will always prefer to have performed by human beings. I think this is a highly questionable premise. David Levy, a British artificial intelligence researcher,  for example, has written a book titled Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships. In this book, he explores the possibility that human beings will be able to relate to robots in such an intimate fashion that we will be dating them within the next 50 years. For a summary of this idea, see Humans will love, marry robots by 2050. Movies like Her and Ex Machina are good illustrations of this idea. If such a notion seems crazy, think of how crazy and unsafe online dating seemed 20 years ago.

Is it really true that human beings will prefer to converse, make love, or take a walk with another human being? We already get frustrated with out lovers, friends, and family members for not “getting us” at times. What if a robot could do better? What if a robot is so advanced that, for all practical purposes, we couldn’t distinguish it from a human being apart from being told? Another possibility that I think has implications for Colvin’s topic is Transhumanism. There are those who think we will one day merge with robots to create a hybrid species. This possibility splits the horn of the traditional human versus robot dichotomy. I don’t pretend to know all the answers nor do I profess to be able to see the future, but I think the ultimate fate of humanity lies in something deeper than our preference for human interaction over robot interaction. I believe that our fate, professionally and spiritually, ultimately lies in our capacity, willingness, and determination to reinvent ourselves in the face of nature’s demand that we adapt. It may very well be the case that all of our ideas regarding how to prepare for the future are wrong. And what gives us value and hope is not our ability to identify which set of skills will be needed the most, but our openness to following W E B Du Bois’ advice to “be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”

This post is part of my personal development project (PDP) for October 2015. It is entry #1 for this month’s 30-day challenge. To see the post detailing my October PDP, click here.