Automation may take our jobs—but it’ll restore our humanity

AI won’t just make us better at our jobs—they’ll make us better humans, too.
AI won’t just make us better at our jobs—they’ll make us better humans, too.
Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
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For humans to survive the automation revolution, we need to double down on our humanity.

The argument goes like this: Artificial intelligence is getting better and better at automating things that humans do. Not just repetitive tasks like assembling parts in a factory, but complex tasks that have traditionally been the domain of humans. Pretty soon, these machine agents will take all the jobs. Humans need not apply.

We’ve seen this movie play out before—and after a gritty fight, we won. The advent of agriculture put hunters and gathers out of business. Then industrial farming put farmers out of business. But each time technology ate one type of jobs, new ones appeared to take their place. Human ingenuity did its thing, we adapted, and we survived to live (and work) another century.

But, say the naysayers, “this time is different.” We’re not talking about dumb machines programmed to do very specific tasks—we’re talking about AIs that learn and get better by watching us and parsing our data for patterns. Globally networked AIs that learn and cooperate with each other will be very powerful, according to author and futurist Yuval Harari. “In order to replace most humans,” he says, “the AI won’t have to do very spectacular things.”

I do not buy into that version of the future, and here are some reasons why.

AI isn’t as smart as you think

AI is smart, but it really isn’t as smart as we think. It’s true that AI is getting better at tackling complex problems, but it’s equally true that AI is still not very good at doing many of the things associated with human jobs.

AIs have gotten pretty good at a believable facsimile of humanity in tightly controlled situations—like scheduling meetings. But a general-purpose AI that truly understands you and can respond with creativity and empathy, like the android Ava from Ex Machina? Not so much. AI isn’t very good at jobs that require creativity, empathy, critical thinking, leadership, artistic expression, and a whole host of other qualities we traditionally think of as “human.” Which is why, according to Michael Chui of the McKinsey Global Institute, entire jobs or industries won’t often be automated away.

Rather, automation will release humans from the need to perform specific tasks. Those will mostly be non-creative and non-personal tasks that can be broken down into relatively predictable parts. These are chores you didn’t want to do to begin with. A lot of people aren’t hired to schedule meetings, submit receipts for reimbursements, or book flights, anyway—for a lot of folks, they’re just a dreadful set of tasks that came along with your otherwise pretty exciting job.

Humans are smarter than you think

As venture capitalist Marc Andreessen points out, there’s a subtext to the-robots-are-taking-our-jobs argument that is rarely discussed: It presupposes that humans are not smart enough to think up new industries and jobs.

But when industrialization killed the agriculture jobs that employed almost three quarters of the population, people dreamed up new ways to keep fellow humans working. We crisscrossed the country with highways. We took to the skies in flying machines. We built computers. We birthed entire industries around entertainment, healthcare, and education.

I have more faith in humans, and I have yet to see any real evidence to support the pessimism. As Andreessen says, people 100 years ago would marvel at the jobs we do today. The optimist in me finds it difficult to imagine why it will be any different 100 years from now.

“AI can seem dystopian because it’s easier to describe existing jobs disappearing than to imagine industries that never existed appearing,” tweeted Box CEO Aaron Levie. He’s right. There’s just no compelling reason to bet against humans when the past 200 years of history shows that we’re pretty damn good at adapting to technological change.

Becoming more human

Not only haven’t we reached our full potential, but AI can help us reach higher. The debate between artificial intelligence (machines replace us) vs intelligence augmentation (machines help us) has been raging for decades. One side wants to engineer humans out of the equation, while the other thinks the role of machines is to help people perform better.

But that debate misses the point. The two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s true that AI can do certain things far better than humans—I’ve staked my entrepreneurial future on that. But it’s also true that when AI starts doing those things, it will make us better at our jobs, and better at being human.

Take a job in sales, for example. Right now, a sales assistant likely spends a lot of time doing things that could be automated: prospecting for and qualifying leads, sending follow-up emails, updating Salesforce, building reports, etc. Once all that’s taken over by intelligent machine agents, what’s left for you as a salesperson? It’s the emotional and creative stuff. You’ll spend your day building relationships and serving your clients with creative solutions to their problems. By freeing you from the mundane tasks you used to have to do, often grudgingly, AI will let you focus on things that form the core of your job: the stuff that only you, a human, can do.

This is already happening. Let’s stick with the sales example. My company’s AI assistant, Amy, removes the tedious task of scheduling meetings from your plate. A sales-specific assistant like Tact automatically captures sales data, reducing administrative load, and then automates the process of organizing it in Salesforce. When it comes time to communicate with leads, Crystal builds personality profiles based on social-media use and suggests ways to personalize your messages. These AI assistants are helping salespeople today by augmenting their existing skills and allowing them to focus on the human side of the job.

Our very human future

One implication of all this is that for humans to succeed in the AI-powered future, we need to double down on our humanity. Technical skills will no doubt remain important in the future of work, but as AI allows us to automate repetitive tasks across many industries, these will in many cases take a back seat to soft skills. Communication, emotional intelligence, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and cognitive flexibility will become the most sought-after abilities. To prepare for that future, we need to emphasize developing higher-order thinking and emotional skills.

While our formal education system catches up to the shifting definition of human intelligence, here are three basic ideas for improving your prospects in the future of work.

  • Learn to tell stories. Machines aren’t very good at storytelling beyond rote reports. Telling engaging and creative stories is essential if you want to collaborate effectively with other humans. It can improve your communications in many ways—from reframing a product feature to a customer to selling a new internal KPI for how you measure success. A workshop from an organization like The Story Studio is a great place to start.
  • Boost your creativity. A lot of people think creativity can’t be learned; you either have it, or you don’t. But that’s not true. Creativity is a process and you can ignite that process and improve your chances of creative results. For example, taking regular, reflective breaks, going for walks, and making time for unstructured play (yes, even for adults!) have been shown to boost creativity.
  • Learn how to sell. Selling is an inherently human trait, and it’s an incredibly important one. I’m not just talking about selling products, but also how to sell yourself, your ideas, and convincing others to get on board with you. Mastering the basic concepts of sales involves a whole lot of very human qualities: understanding psychology, listening and asking questions, empathizing with others, and finding creative solutions to problems.

I see a bright future for humans. In fact, I believe there will be plenty of challenging work for humans because of AI, not in spite of it. I build AI agents for a living, but when it comes to creativity and innovation, I’ll continue to bet on humans. We’ll come through with new ideas, new industries, and new ways to keep ourselves busy and productive, this time buttressed by AI helpers. Our imagination will carry us forward. It always does.