Our Antidotes to Technological Unemployment

As we automate the functions of business, we sow questions about the future of human work.

Dystopian visions of technological unemployment are easy, since they basically just extrapolate much of the bad stuff technology does today into an unknown tomorrow. Though these darker futures oddly captivate me, I find myself also working hard to paint a more optimistic, perhaps even utopian, possibility in my head:

Might technology strip us of the more scripted and robot-like work so that what remains for us is that which makes us most human?


Bumble-BeeOur movie and TV storytellers use a simple plot device that turns machines into human-like protagonists, complete with human-like volition, will, and initiative. This Hollywood view of artificial intelligence has deeply permeated the way our imaginations intuit the machines of the future, but it oversimplifies something important.

In the near future, machines will be able to ‘perform’ a kind of human-like volition that will make them appear to be making decisions on their own. They may even look like some of what we see in the movies, but their underlying reality will be quite different.

Today’s machine learning techniques mark a big change from the very deliberate human coding that was required in the expert systems of our earlier approaches to artificial intelligence. With Deep Learning, there is a kind of emergent intelligence that arises out of algorithmic structure, an intelligence that is not always fully understood by its human designers. But just because these patterns of intelligence are complex does not mean that they have volition. They are still very much the result of human-driven processes; a human still sets them in motion.

We do not yet fully understand what constitutes human volition, how it arose, or how it works. What is clear is that this ability to generate initiative – to put things in motion – is quite distinct from what software does today, which is really just responding to external stimulus, from us. I am not one to dismiss the possibility that one day some form of free will could emerge in machines; after all, we are living proof that nature has proven itself capable of carving volition from coding – genetic coding, in our case. We just need to be clear that artificial volition would appear to be a very large step.

None of us can know whether or for how long this human source of differentiation will last, but it is important to understand that for the foreseeable future it is much more important than our Hollywood visions of the future would have us believe.

Human Connection

Synthesized LoveAs I recently noted, we will soon have machines that will be quite convincing in ‘performing’ affection. More and more of what we call user experience design will entail building a kind of “artificial emotional intelligence” into our devices. This simulated affection will increasingly make us feel we have relationships with our things, just as people do today with their Roombas.

Here again though, just as performing free will is not the same as having it, performing affection is not the same as actually being capable of it. Simulated affection will no doubt have some place in our economy, but as it grows more commonplace, so too will the value we place on genuine human connection.

Sherry Turkle has shown that the social media and texting that so dominate teens’ social reality also seem to generate a real craving for undivided attention and genuine connection. When it comes to affection and relationships, quantity does not necessarily trump quality. Staying on top of social media notifications, texts and email does not feed us in the same way as those rare moments when we really connect with each other on a deeper level.

Millions of years of genetic programming, if not something even deeper, have given us a powerful capacity for discerning when someone is being real with us. Though nothing is a given, that too, is likely to remain something uniquely human for quite some time.

Employing Our Humanity

What I am suggesting here is that if you’re a human being looking to avoid technological unemployment in the coming age of artificial intelligence, initiative and human connection are pretty good bets.

Initiative and connection are two of the attributes that most differentiate humans in a work environment, and not surprisingly, I’ve found them to be an excellent compass in choosing who to hire for a job. Does someone relate well with their colleagues while getting the job done? Do they demonstrate a history of showing initiative in their work; an ability to generate something new, to move things forward, a sense of ownership, accountability and drive? I’ve rarely gone wrong hiring for these qualities; in the long-run, they’ve always proven more valuable than the short-term boosts from hiring for specific skills.

Initiative and connection aren’t just matters of effectiveness either. Hiring people with these qualities also creates a more interesting, and intrinsically rewarding, workplace. These are people who know how to color within the lines, but who also know how and why to go off-script – and that’s what most distinguishes them from software.

I increasingly see organizations as a new hybrid entity – part technology and part humanity. In fact, I think it is our humanity that is likely to serve as a kind of ‘soul’ for our most promising enterprises of the future. A few weeks ago, while being interviewed by David Amerland for a Social Media Today Powertalk, I was asked by viewer, Steve Bonin about “soul” and “humanization” in organizations. Here, in a one-minute take, was my response:

We are more than the organizational systems in which we work, and in the end, I believe it is that ability to recognize that deeper aspect of who and what we are that will best preserve our value as a partner with technology in whatever of future enterprises come to be.




Special thanks to John Ellis and Alexandra Riecke-Gonzales from SEOWise for their help in the above show.

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