by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Fans of Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource might appreciate the findings touted in Geoff Colvin‘s cover story for the latest issue of Fortune magazine: “Humans Are Underrated.”
Fear of technological unemployment is as old as technology, and it has always been unfounded. Over time and across economies, technology has multiplied jobs and raised living standards more spectacularly than any other force in history, by far. But now growing numbers of economists and technologists wonder if just maybe that trend has run its course. That’s why former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers says these issues will be “the defining economic feature of our era.”
How will we humans add value? There is an answer, but so far we’ve mostly been looking for it in the wrong way. The conventional approach has been to ask what kind of work a computer will never be able to do. …
… Yes, figuring out what computers will never do is an exceedingly perilous route to determining how humans can remain valuable. A better strategy is to ask, What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans, even if computers could do them? …
… [H]umans rather than computers will have to solve some problems for purely practical reasons. It isn’t because computers couldn’t eventually solve them. It’s because in real life, and especially in organizational life, we keep changing our conception of what the problem is and what our goals are. Those are issues that people must work out for themselves, and, critically, they must do it in groups. Partly that’s because organizations include many constituencies that must be represented in problem solving, and partly it’s because groups can solve problems far better than any individual can.
A more important category of people-only work comprises the tasks that we must do with or for other humans, not machines, simply because our most essential human nature demands it, for reasons too deep even to be articulated. We are social beings, hardwired from our evolutionary past to equate personal relationships with survival. We want to work with other people in solving problems, tell them stories and hear stories from them, create new ideas with them, because if we didn’t do those things on the savanna 100,000 years ago, we died. The evidence is clear that the most effective groups are those whose members most strongly possess the most essentially, deeply human abilities—empathy above all, social sensitivity, storytelling, collaborating, solving problems together, building relationships. We developed these abilities of interaction with other people, not machines, not even emotion-sensing, emotion-expressing machines.