Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Humans Are Underrated - Hope in the Age of Machine

Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated is set to come out in the UK in September and I would look forward to read the book. From the snippet published in Fortune magazine (Read here), Colvin seems to make an interesting argument. That it is time to rethink what it means to be human. In the race against the machine, it is futile to try to figure out what the machines can not do. Very smart people have tried and failed before, as the logic of Moores Law caught up with their prediction. With the Arrive-By date of Singularity set in 2029 (by Ray Kurzweil), even the tasks we think are beyond technologies, will soon not be. So, the point is not to try to outsmart technologies, but to figure out what really matters.

The answers he provides are not dissimilar to the ones we already have had. His list of five big 21st century skills include empathising, collaborating, creating, leading and building relationships. These are similar to what we hear from other people trying to think about The Second Machine Age, to use a popular expression, but there is one key distinction. The skills Colvin lists are not really skills, and indeed, many of the endeavours professing to prepare people for the 21st Century, like the ones which focus on entrepreneurship, often focus away from these key themes. It is more likely that an entrepreneurship curriculum will teach how to exploit social themes rather than being socially sensitive, the so-called finishing schools will rather teach communication and art of looking smart rather than being humble and empathy, and the presentation skills often mean ability to project ones superiority than being able to listen and learn. 

Here is where the Underrated bit is right on the money! In fact, many of these social sensitivities are laughed at in the professional circles, because the last two hundred years of European/ Western industrial civilisation was built on the cult of the individual, with belief in human genius and personal accomplishments, with attendant bragging rights. The advent of the machines, even though engineered by the humans, is one supreme achievement of this civilisation, and its end too! At the very moment when a machine could think - the Chappie moment, say - the industrial culture would triumph, and be doomed. The things that would matter then is empathy - and indeed, Chappie, if you have seen the movie, is powered by empathy while the humans around him are driven by envy, greed and hatred - and all the other stuff we have chosen to ignore, degrade and laugh at, for many years.

Finally, one important assumption in Colvins view of the future is that humans will remain in charge. This is a plausible assumption, but not an uncontested one. Our current debate between utopian - the world of abundance - and dystopian - the world of Robot overlords - is really a debate about ourselves, as highlighted by many recent commentators (see my earlier post here). We set the priorities now, of what technologies we develop (should we develop vaccines for Ebola or invest in cars that drive themselves, for example) - and the choices we make are driven by the same power play that made the industrial civilisation industrial, or so not human. It is that same power-play - whether a few will rule or we would continue the human civilisation - that determine what we do today, and by extension, what happens tomorrow. In that sense, we need those underrated skills today, rather than later when the machine age has arrived, presumably with wrong priorities. 


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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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