Darl Kolb on life among the robots

14 November 2017

Darl Kolb is Professor of Connectivity in the Business School's Graduate School of Management. He argues that instead of resisting artificial intelligence and the rise of robots in the workplace, we should let machines do what they are best at and focus on the unique qualities that make us human.

Video Transcript


There is a lot of talk about machines taking our jobs – and robots, automation. It is all very concerning. But I do see it a little differently. I don't want to cast this as an us-versus-them, human-against-the-machine dilemma. I actually see that we need to work more closely with machines in our future.

Rather than seeing machines as our opponent, what we ought to think about is what machines do well – and they do a lot of things much better than we do. But also, what do we as humans do better than machines? And if we concentrate on that, it becomes a different story for us to think about.

0:44 What humans do well

Humans are very good at some things and we often think  of our relatively big brain developing for cognitive complex tasks – thermodynamics, etcetera. But [some] neuroscientists believe that our big brain was developed for complex tasks that were social in nature – who owns the tribe, where are the resources, how do we create inter-tribal peace? These are very complex problems that required a big brain, and our human development shows that we are able to do this. The question is can we keep those human skills of collaboration, asking questions, curiosity, empathy, can we keep those alive in an age where machines are much more pervasive?

Humans have always used tools, and to some extent we might argue that the current batch of technologies are just an extension of that. But there are some unique dangers. For example, if we look at things like social mediation, or the amount of screen time we use, etcetera, that is taking us into a realm where we as humans are sacrificing some of our unique characteristics. For example, we know that social media – the platforms we all participate in – are actually not good for social empathy. We provide great information about ourselves, but we are not necessarily connecting with others in a meaningful way. Not really understanding or wanting to know what others have done when we are taking pictures of our meals or our kids or whatever. To some extent that might seem trivial, but it means that in a day-to-day sense the media are weaning us away from the things that we as humans can do well – collaboration, empathy, and raising questions.

2:31 Co-evolving with machines

If it were a straight-out competition where machines took our jobs then that would be one thing, but in fact we know that we will be working with machines. Very few jobs can be fully automated. So only a very small percentage. So, most of us are going to be working with machines.

And here is another risk. We don't want machines to dumb us down. So their interfaces, the things they require of us, the way they capture our attention, if that makes us worse as human beings that is another problem.

In the first Industrial Revolution humans had to fit around the machines. Machines were installed and people worked around them, literally. And over the years that has become more ergonomically sensible, safer. But in this era we should be able to work with machines in an entirely different framework. People need to be smart and fussy consumers of technology, especially at work. For example, if an interface doesn't work well, we need to push back and demand that it works well for the purpose we are using it. Keeping the part of our work that is human preserved and sacred, not moving around the machinery – and in this case, by 'machinery' I mean software, interfaces, the visual screen, the applications we might be working with. We need to see this as a collaborative effort with machines, or a co-evolution, if you will, between our abilities and our intent and what the machines can do, and constantly insisting that they become more natural, more supportive, and more effective alongside us.

4:13 Asking better questions

I believe that technology can actually make us better humans, in part because it gives us something to compare ourselves to and to remind us what it is to be human. Although, again, I think that gets blurred in our fast-paced day-to-day life. But if we start thinking about what it means to be truly human, we can work and develop that. I have spent 40 years trying to develop human beings with and without technology. It is not an easy process but it is really worth the time and effort.

Garry Kasparov, who famously was beaten by IBM's Big Blue at chess – he is a chess master – in reflecting on that episode of his life, he had this great optimism. Machines are going to do what they do well – in his case beat him at chess – but we, as humans, still have great characteristics. He says machines have processes and humans have passion, machines can do analytics and answer questions, but it is humans who ask the best questions.

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