The robots may be coming to take our jobs -- but one trait might keep you safe

RobotJeff J. Mitchell/GettyGeoff Colvin’s ‘Humans Are Underrated’ argues that there’s still a place for us in the robot economy — at least for the moment.

In 2014, the Associated Press began publishing thousands of articles about US corporate earnings.

Most were not written by humans.

Similar software is taking on Wall Street, synthesizing and analysing data at a pace people can’t match.

If you’re going to the doctor for a screening, you’ll probably be sedated by an anesthesiologist, unless you happen to be at one of the hospitals using Johnson & Johnson’s Sedasys anesthesiology machine, in which case you might be sedated by a plastic box.

There is no doubt the robots are coming. In many cases, the robots are already here. The question now is what that means for the rest of us.

The answer, argues journalist Geoff Colvin in his new book, “Humans Are Underrated,” which imagines our future among the machines, is at once reassuring and unsettling. There is good news and bad news, or good news and good news, depending on your particular skillset and predilection for feelings.

The good news: As Colvin sees it, humans will remain not only valuable, but powerful. Yes, he acknowledges, a complete robopocalypse may be coming eventually.

“I take seriously what Bill Gates and Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking say about artificial intelligence achieving a level where it becomes a threat to humanity,” Colvin tells me.

But eventually is not what he wants to talk about now. Both in the book and by phone, he’s hesitant to project too far into the future. What he wants to talk about now is what’s going to happen in the next five to 10 years.

“I mean, you need to be clear,” Colvin says. “Lots of jobs will be lost to technology in the coming five to 10 years — lots of jobs.”

And not just manufacturing jobs: The skills we have come to value most highly are becoming increasingly commodified, and jobs that couldn’t possibly have been done by computers a decade ago now can be. The thing computers are really, really good at is processing data, analysing data, and making predictions from data, and they’re getting dramatically better at it all the time. People are not.

There is nothing new about the idea that technology reshuffles which human skills are most valuable. That’s what machines do. (Ask your local blacksmith.) But this particular shuffle represents a historic shift: Machines are taking over not only manual labour but also cognitive labour.

For years, lawyers, doctors, and investment bankers have represented the pinnacles of skilled labour. But now, says Colvin, even these high-status, high-skill jobs are threatened by computers.

There’s legal software that can sift through case law and identify relevant precedents far faster than human lawyers. Computers can out-diagnose medical professionals, too: IBM’s Watson — best known for its star turn on “Jeopardy!” — is significantly better at diagnosing lung cancers than human doctors. In 2014, computer-based high-frequency trading accounted for about half of US equity trades.

We’ll still need human lawyers and human physicians and human investment bankers, but as technology improves and disseminates, we’ll need fewer of them.

But, Colvin argues, there is a bright spot amid the gloom, one thing humans can do that robots can’t: Be human. If our intellect can’t save us, our capacity for feeling might. And it’s those interpersonal skills — relationship-building, collaborating, empathy, and cultural sensitivity — that are poised to become top currency.

If you can’t beat the machines at being machines anymore, you can beat the machines at not being machines.

Worldwide, employers — and not just do-gooder nonprofits, but the likes of McKinsey, Barclays, and Pfizer — are saying cognitive skills aren’t enough. They also want empathy. They need people who can understand what the patient, client, or customer are really feeling. They want this not because it’s nice, though presumably a workplace filled with socially adept people is a more pleasant place than a workplace of sequestered sociopaths. They want it because empathy and accordant social skills are profitable, and robots don’t have them (yet).

RobotOli Scarff/GettyIf you can’t beat the machines at being machines anymore, you can beat the machines at not being machines.

When American Express threw out its call-center scripts and let service reps actually talk to people, Colvin points out, profits went up, employee attrition went down, and customers were “far more likely” to recommend the brand to a friend. Empathetic doctors are more effective than less empathetic ones — they’re better diagnosticians, for one thing, and they’re also less likely to get sued. Colvin throws out a battery of examples: Over and over, empathy pays.

And for the moment, at least, humans have the market on empathy cornered. It’s not that robots cannot process emotion. They can, and — in keeping with their general robotic superiority — are in fact better at it than we are. A computer can look at all 40 muscles of the human face, remember all 3,000 possible expressions, and analyse what they “see” with an accuracy that significantly trumps our own. Theoretically, the machines should be winning here, too.

But just because a computer can do something doesn’t mean we want it to. “We want to hear our diagnosis from a doctor, even if a computer supplied it,” Colvin says. “We want to work with other people in solving problems, tell them stories and hear stories from them, create new ideas with them.”

It’s worth noting that we seem to want these things even when they are worse than the robot equivalent. Think about how much safer than humans self-driving cars would need to be before you would feel comfortable having one take you to work. Now imagine the robot is your heart surgeon.

In some ways this seems depressing: The thing that’s keeping us from obsolescence is our own collective irrationality, which on some level seems like an argument for the robots’ taking over. Robots, presumably, would make more rational decisions.

“The fact that we’re not totally rational does seem like a problem,” Colvin tells me. “When it comes to simply evaluating evidence, technology really has an advantage, and we should use it for what it does best.”

And yet there is a concrete defence for our preference that some tasks be done by real humans. Robots may be able to read and respond to our emotions, but they can’t understand us the way people can. Empathy, Colvin says, depends on reciprocity: I see you, you respond to my seeing you, and that, in turn, elicits a response in me. That process remains the province of humans, at least for now.

The idea that empathy and related interpersonal skills — which we’ve always liked in theory but haven’t necessarily rewarded with prestige or money — are the key skills does have potentially radical social consequences.

“You don’t need rigorously designed social science experiments to tell you that women will perform those skills best,” Colvin writes, citing a series of them. (The extent of these claims, it’s worth noting, are not uncontested.) But whether women get the empathy advantage Colvin is talking about from nature or nurture, or both, hardly matters. What matters is that a certain set of interpersonal skills that have been forever associated with women are increasingly not only valuable, but valued.

This is potentially troubling news if you were planning to spend the rest of your career building spreadsheets in a cubicle. But it also seems unlikely that the world order is about to topple and high-empathy, predominantly female professions (caregiving, teaching, social services) — all notoriously underpaid — are about to become staggeringly lucrative.

It’s not an inversion; it’s what Colvin calls a “balancing.” The skills that have always been valuable will not suddenly evaporate, or at least not all at once. Instead, he predicts, it’s people — men and women — with hybrid skills who will win “in a world that increasingly favours a combination of high technological literacy and deep social sensitivity.”

Empathy isn’t all that’s left for us, but it’s all that’s left for only us. It’s a skill, we can learn it — Colvin is emphatic about that — and we’d all do well to study up.

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