3 Ways to Be a Better Human, via an Robot and AI Expert

Kevin Roose, a technology columnist for The New York Times, kicked off his presentation to 800 corporate sustainability and responsibility executives at BSR19 this week with this pronouncement: “No Job is Robot-Proof.”

He then showed how the opening portion of his remarks was written by a robot. He showed how robots are better at editing legal documents. They are better at diagnosing diseases based on symptoms. They can design fashionable dresses. A website, Will Robots Take My Job, allows you to put in various jobs and see the likelihood that a robot will do it.

Roose’s forthcoming book, Futureproof, explores the question of what humans do, in a world where machines are better than humans at a lot of tasks. He concludes that it’s not what humans do; it’s how we do it, that differentiates us. Humans are better at handling surprises. Humans are better at being social. Humans are better at doing things that are scarce or unique.  

The irony is that a number of workplace and technology trends are chipping away at those critical aspects of our humanity. He shared research that time spent on your phone decreases emotional intelligence, which, along with creativity, are key human advantages versus robots. He shared research that telecommuting decreases social connections and networks, a core human advantage.

Therefore, in order to future proof ourselves, Roose’s prescription is that we need to focus on being really, really good at being human. Here are the three things he suggests to improve:

Get off your phone

Roose admits to being a full phone addict before writing this book. His research prompted him to do a full digital detox, and he now keeps a rubber band around his phone to ensure mindfulness about using it.

Work in an office

While the productivity benefits of working from home are real, there are also costs in lost social connections, creative collisions, and unexpected collaborations. The office is a facilitator for the type of social connections that are critical to our unique strengths. He encourages going in and using it more regularly.

Use AI to Empower People, Not Control Them

His final recommendation was an appeal to the audience to think long and hard about how their companies use AI with their employees. A large e-commerce company is evidently using AI to monitor productivity, and if someone misses a target for any reason, a machine automatically writes and sends their termination letter. He referenced Lordstown syndrome, a term coined by journalists in the 1970s to describe employees who, after the introduction of new technology and speed up of operations, revolted and disrupted operations in large part because the workers felt they had no input and had lost control. He urged the audience to think about applications where the robots complement and work together with employees to do what they do best and let us do what we do best.

I certainly came away with his presentation with a renewed commitment to limiting phone use (particularly my own, although consider this a fair warning to the Stevens children). It reinforced my decision to maintain our office. I’m still thinking through what AI applications would most empower our team, our users, and our family. Empowering is just not the word I’d use to describe Alexa so far.

All thoughts and ideas welcome. Because humans coming up with creative ideas to help each other is, after all, what we do best.

Quote of the Week: “Don’t think of robots as replacements for humans—think of them as things that will help make us better at tackling many of the problems we face.”

Eoin Treacy

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