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Just what can't computers do?

Geoff Colvin | Aug. 7, 2015
As technology advances, we poor humans are getting desperate for sources of self-esteem. Everyone knows computers can play chess and Jeopardy! better than we can. They sort thousands of documents for relevance in legal cases faster, cheaper and better than lawyers do. They assemble electronic products in factories faster, cheaper and better than people do. They can drive cars better than human drivers can.

The pattern is clear: Extremely smart people try to discern what computers can't do, and it's only a matter of time before computers do it.

Instead of studying technology in order to see how we'll create value, a better strategy is to study ourselves. What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans, even if computers could do them?

When we flip our thinking in this manner, we begin to uncover the key to high-value work in the future economy. It's the skills of social interaction -- empathy, social sensitivity, storytelling, forming relationships, collaborating, leading, creatively solving problems together. These are the essence of humanity. As the eminent neuroscientist and psychologist Michael Gazzaniga has written, "We are social to the core." We are hard-wired to interact with one another, using these skills, because otherwise, out on the savanna 100,000 years ago, we died. For us, skillful social interaction is survival, whether we like it or not, know it or not, acknowledge it or not. We won't be devaluing those abilities anytime soon.

It isn't just theory. As technology takes over more tasks, employers increasingly seek exactly these skills of personal interaction. At the top of their wish lists:

  • Empathy: It means discerning what another person is thinking and feeling, and responding appropriately. It's key for organizations looking to create complete and meaningful experiences for customers.
  • Collaborating: The world is doing ever more of its work in teams. We form, exchange, improve, accept and reject ideas, and we improve our collective performance, through deeply human interpersonal processes that may happen even without our knowing it.
  • Storytelling: It may not be rational, but we humans find stories more compelling and persuasive than mere facts. Yet we aren't moved by a story unless we can evaluate the teller, decide whether he or she is trustworthy, and gauge the true passion that he or she brings to it. We didn't evolve to make that connection with a robot.
  • Creatively solving problems together: No matter how capable computers become, humans are still in charge of which problems need to get solved, and humans in organizations are constantly revising their ideas of what their problems and goals really are. Success requires group creativity and innovation.

As anxiety grows over more capable computers, worried workers must understand that technology isn't the enemy. It's merely doing what it has always done: revaluing skills, making some less valuable and others more so. Don't ask what computers can't do. Ask what humans must do -- and be good at it.


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