Future Of Work: Being Human Will Always Trump Machines And AI
→ Humans have an advantage with five intelligences that are unbeatable by machines or software.
Rabindranath Tagore suggested we don’t learn from experience but reflect on experience. Society must reflect if today’s education fights yesterday’s war. Google knows everything. Robots don’t get tired. Softwares use machine learning and artificial intelligence to continuously get better at rules-based routine work. Breathless tech evangelists suggest software is free of the emotional, psychological, and cultural baggage that contaminates human thinking. This breathlessness amplifies fear about the future of jobs and consequently distorts individual and policy choices. We make the case that this fear is ahistorical, human emotions are not a bug but a feature, and humans have an advantage in being human.
Most discussions about the future of jobs get distorted by presentism (a belief that today’s circumstances are special and unique; no generation before has faced our problems), catastrophising (overweighting the view of the merchants of worst-case scenario; they overweight the low probability but possible disaster), and lack of humility (the future is unknowable; it would change as soon as it was known).
Interesting, rigorous, and valuable research from Oxford University, MIT, McKinsey, Stanford, Bank of England, etc., suggests a high probability of 40-50% of jobs being replaced by technology in the next few decades. Of course, this is true for prosperous economies; 50% of the new jobs in most recent decades did not exist in the decade before that. It is also true that this job churn co-existed—or maybe caused—a massive reduction in global inequality in the last fifty years, an enormous increase in economic complexity in the last 100 years, and exploded human flourishing in the last 200 years.
We are mindful that the ‘work without workers’ prediction may be accurate. But we are sceptical for three reasons.
First, the argument around future jobs is made by forecasting ‘gross’ not ‘net’ changes. History suggests that bets on human creativity, imagination, and ingenuity are usually winners; remember the suggestion by Stanford Professor Paul Ehlrich in 1972 that solving the global hunger problems needed letting Indians starve?
Second, this argument is less relevant for countries like India where many workers are far from the productivity frontier (50% of our labour force probably produces less than 20% of gross domestic product).
Third, we think humans have five intelligences that machines or software currently find impossible to replicate. Let’s look at each in more detail.
A lesson that most adults learn the hard way around is conversation. What you say is not as important as how you say it, who says it (the messenger is more important than the message), when you say it (be thoughtful about timing), where you say it (be strategic about the venue and who else is listening), what tone you use, and much else. Being good at it requires a real-time synthesis arising from using the different abilities of our hearts, minds, and souls.
Politics is the unique art of forging compromises, building big tents, and working with people you don’t always like. As routine work gets automated, workers create value by effectively collaborating with cognitively multilingual groups. The political notion of allies, not friends, becomes relevant to the world of business as ad hoc teams, gig workers, interdisciplinary committees, and more fluid organisations become the norm. Great examples of this intelligence can be found in Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Lincoln hires the people who stood against him for President in his cabinet), Jugalbandi by Vinay Sitapati (the rise of the BJP before Modi), and Naraoji by Dinyar Patel (he was too moderate for the radicals and too radical for the moderates).
It is impossible to unpack whether luck or skill matters more; we know many skilled people who are unlucky and a lot of lucky people who are unskilled. But we also know people who increase their odds of being lucky using levers like diverse professional and personal networks, a sophisticated understanding of Dunbar’s Number on stable social relationships, frequent but prudent risk-taking (the odds are low of winning the lottery, but odds are zero without buying a ticket), openness and conversations with strangers, patience (being in the right place at the right time might just be hanging out in the right place and waiting), cognitive multilingualism (luck likes intersections), and much else.
Academic Richard Wiseman suggests that people who smile more tend to be luckier than those that don’t (some of you might be thinking that lucky people smile more, and that’s possible. But we agree with Wiseman’s causality).
Our parents had 35-year careers, and we will have 45-year careers, but our kids will have 55-year careers. The traditional upfront 12, 15, or 17 years of education will be insufficient for this marathon, and stopping learning is not an option. Thoughtful people will curate personal lifelong learning plans with five pillars; diverse experiences, challenging roles, reading lists, diverse relationships, and formal classrooms. Learning intelligence requires deliberately curating your personal learning plan because each pillar has different price points, availability, efficacy, and applications that will appeal to different people in different proportions.
But the most crucial indicator of learning intelligence is having a multi-year personal learning plan.
Strategy is often confused with goals and has multiple definitions; we prefer thinking of it as the art of reconciling unlimited aspiration with limited resources or the art of creating unfair advantages. Being a good strategist requires agency (believing you are the chef, not the waiter) and understanding reflexivity (your questions can change the answers). Strategy needs understanding compounding because big rewards need persistence (the choice of getting Rs 10 lakh upfront or one paise doubling every day for a month is a not a no-brainer; the one paise becomes more than Rs 1 crore in a month but till the 24th day you are better off taking the ten lakh upfront). A good strategist recognises what 18th century General Karl von Clauswitz called Friction: planning for the unanticipated by thinking about resilience, redundancy, and scenarios. A great book on thinking about this intelligence is through its history; Strategy by Lawrence Freedman.
Our view of technology as an ally in flourishing is rooted in optimism; evidence suggests that machines and software taking over dirty, dangerous, repetitive, logical, and monotonous tasks frees imperfect but extraordinary humans to do stuff that is fun, interesting, and inspiring. But we optimists accept that pessimists will always get more respect because we sound like we are trying to sell you something while pessimists sound like they are trying to protect you. So let’s try making our case on the cool and cheeky confidence that is uniquely human; the new Top Gun movie has an admiral pitching for pilotless drones to replace the judgment of experienced pilots, and berates Tom Cruise, “people like you are going extinct.” He replies, “Maybe. But not today”.
Manish Sabharwal is Vice Chairman and Co-Founder, and Priya Gopalakrishnan is Head - Human Resources, at Teamlease Services.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.