The world is flooded with data and information beyond the capacity of a single human brain to collect, let alone process. Some people will remember the days when they could rattle off the phone numbers of close friends and family. No more.
Now that the entire global community is at our disposal through an array of mediums, memorization is in some cases unnecessary. Handwriting is similarly growing ever more obsolete. In fact, various traditionally human tasks are being taken up by AI and robots.
Many fear that technological dependence is withering away our intelligence. The assumption being that we are intrinsically lazy and happy to dislocate uncomfortable or inconvenient tasks onto AI. In the process, some say, we risk forsaking our intellect, and therein, our control.
This narrative is peddled by alarmist tech press. Many report worst-case scenarios based on speculation and science fiction. Frankly, the reality before us is likely far more nuanced than sheer dominance.
Given our sordid history, it’s easy to envision tech tyranny, but the chances are that technology will continue to blend with humanity until we have new kinds of intelligence, new means of collaboration, new types of decision making, and new areas of hybrid work that recreate the workforce. In this recent podcast, I argue that AI and automation will lead to the creation of more jobs, not destroy them. Just because we today are unable to envision the kind of work we will do in the future when machines are an integral part of our lives, does not imply our children aren't going to think of it either. Who are we to take that wager against human intuition and inspiration?
Fear and distrust often accompany disruptive changes. Rock n’ roll and televisions were accompanied by skepticism and aversion in their heyday. Bank tellers handling routine cash dispensing tasks started doing more cognitively demanding jobs when the ATM came into existence. They started building relationships with customers, introducing them to new financial products such as loans, credit cards and investment plans. Although the ATM caused the number of tellers per branch to reduce by 30 percent, banks opened 40 percent more branches given it was cheaper to do so, resulting in more net tellers per branch with more branches and more access to customers. In 1970 there were about 250,000 tellers in the market. Today there are twice as many despite all the automation in consumer banking. In the past 100 years, the US has employed more people in just about every decade than the previous one, despite an industrial revolution and the advent of computers in our lives.
In the early 1900s when the tractor entered the scene, it threatened massive unemployment in the farm states with an entire generation of youth no longer needed on the farms. But we rose to the challenge and took a step that is without doubt the greatest investment America ever made in the 20th century - the High School Movement. We required our youth to stay in school till 16, something that was unprecedented at the time and extremely expensive to do. The youth could not work either on the farms or do any other type of job while in school. And look at the result! We ended up with the greatest, most skilled, most creative and most productive workforce the world has ever seen. It is this workforce that created jobs we could never have imagined of in the past - yoga instructors, robotic surgery and even the creation of Pokemon Go.
The fear of disruption is understandable, but at odds with the reality we inhabit. Disruption—creative destruction—is the order of the day. We must learn to cope in parsimonious and more even-handed ways.
Indeed, this is a lesson we've been wanting to learn ever since the Industrial Revolution. History taught us that nothing is forever, that no empire or technology is unshakeable. No lifestyle constant.
Social roles, business models, tools and even culture are in constant flux. And for every change, there is a proportional consequence. As traditional jobs fade into the past, new jobs that demand new skills and mindsets emerge.
Sure, our devices are becoming faster, stronger, and more accurate, but they are not becoming human. AI is its own kind of intelligence. Our devices can recognize our voices and act upon simple instructions, identify photos of animals much quicker than the human brain, but all these instruction are preprogrammed.
There is still a driver behind the wheel.
Even when the driver is no longer necessary (self-driving cars, etc.) the decision-making parameters of a computer will not mimic those of a human. For better or worse we are emotional and irrational beings that, despite evolutionary hurdles, made it this far.
AI is the product of human imagination, not nature. It is programmed to think unlike humans: they represent an ideal of logic that we cannot incarnate, but they are not human and never will be.
What we should be doing is using this opportunity to determine what it means to be human. We have capacities and abilities that AI cannot emulate: our adaptability and ingenuity, our bodies, our emotions. These are unique qualities of Homo Sapiens that ought be reevaluated and advantaged.
In this sense, our education system is severely lacking.
Education has traditionally adopted the one-size fits all approach, leaving behind anyone that couldn’t keep up. Not only is that wasted human potential; it belies a reality that each person has untapped abilities of possible benefit to society as a whole.
Teachers are now embracing technology to facilitate the individualization of education. Ensuring that we hone our children's strengths rather than propagate their weaknesses will help them be the best version of themselves.
It’ll also differentiate what is uniquely human from what is uniquely machine, and what should be hybridized.
Another threat to the realization of what makes us human is personalization. We demand technology adapt to us. Instead, we unwittingly conform to it. Imperceptibly our lifestyle is controlled by the very algorithms that promise us consumer satisfaction.
What we want to watch on Netflix, our next purchase on Amazon, the posts we see on social media or the home improvement loans we qualify for are all outputs determined by an algorithm.
More troubling still is that human beings bent on manipulating us into certain behaviors and actions program algorithms.
We shouldn’t fear the machines. We should fear malevolent actors working behind the scenes to systematize conformity, suppress human potential, and instill fear in a technology that is already embedded in every aspect of our lives and society—whether we like it or not.
Before we start blaming technology, we should demand accountability from the businesses and governments that fail to prepare us for disruption or wield it to greedily manipulate our thinking and habits.
We must also prepare ourselves to think differently, to grow in the midst of change, as is the fate of our species.
Do not let fear dictate your thoughts and actions.