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  • Samuel Loncar

How to Be Human in a Machine World

Samuel Loncar reviews Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will

Humans seem to relish the prospect of their own extinction. Perhaps it’s the imaginative equivalent to standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, knowing the slightest tip forward would end the world as you know it: there’s something thrilling in mortality made tangible. The apocalyptic imagination is a vibrant force in American culture, and has of late filled the pages of financial journalism with images of a machine-run world in which humans are doomed to a new serfdom. These apocalyptic images depend on questionable facts—facts that are not as easily separated from images as one might think, for images combined with story give facts their power. Empirical data take on life when folded seamlessly into a narrative – progress through science! Golden age no more, civilization in decline! – which supplies them with broader cultural significance, a strong sense of drama, and an imaginarium stocked with pictures that capture our desires and fears.

So what has led the normally sober and black-shoed authors of leading financial and policy outlets to dip their toes into the stream of American apocalyptic? The short answer is: Silicon Valley. The longer answer is a horde of facts which eagerly march into any current discussion of technology and economics, although whose side they’re on isn’t always clear. If we take only the leading facts that drive many toward apocalyptic scenarios, the most visible is the growing power of software. Or, as Marc Andreesen put it in his colorful culinary metaphor, the fact that “software is eating the world.” It’s natural to wonder: why is software so hungry?

Software is hungry because computer intermediation is now the most economically prominent fact in the recent history of technology. There is a significant minority of investors and authors who have noted that innovation outside of the computer industry has been stagnant for decades. Peter Thiel expressed this view succinctly: “We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters.” The truth of Thiel’s complaint is evident everywhere we go, literally, for one has only to observe how dated and decrepit our physical infrastructure is, particularly in transportation, to see material justification for his concern. In spite of this stagnation in the physical world, the exponential growth of computing power (summarized by Moore’s Law) has led to software’s rise from a niche area of the economy to an empire unto itself, conquering industry after industry. Between almost any business and its clients now exists a sophisticated software platform. Whether it’s the self-checkout line at a grocery store, the imminent prospect of autonomous vehicles, or the fact that there are programs that now write articles and do legal research, computers and their programs increasingly insert themselves between a business and its product, transforming businesses in the process (who thought Google would be a competitor in the automobile industry?). Andreesen was right. Software is eating the world, and it is eyeing hungrily industries whose products and processes have traditionally had nothing to do with computers. So, computers are getting smarter and more ubiquitous at an exponential rate. That’s an important fact, and a scary one, when paired with an obvious truth: there is no Moore’s Law for human intelligence. Cue apocalyptic scenarios.

Geoff Colvin. Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will. Portfolio, 2015, pp. 256, $27.95

And enter Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large at Fortune and author of Talent is Overrated, whose new book, Humans are Underrated: What High Achievers Know that Brilliant Machines Never Will, presents an enjoyable, instructive, and humane response to this question: “what will be the high-value human skills of tomorrow—the jobs that will pay well for us and our kids . . . To put it starkly: What will people do better than computers?” Colvin sees that there is a bad way to answer this question, namely, by asking what computers can’t, or won’t be able, to do. Few people thought computers would be writing articles for the AP or doing legal research, and the history of people betting against technology suggests that it’s a bad idea.

Colvin’s strategy is to ask a different, subtler, and deeper question: “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, regardless of what computers can do?” He makes two assumptions clear that undergird his approach: humans are in charge, and a perfect imitation of a human being won’t yet exist in our grandchildren’s lifetime. Colvin rightly sees that if either of these points are not taken for granted, all bets are off.

By focusing on what is distinctively and deeply human rather than what technology will look like in the future, Colvin writes a book which is at once winsome and practical yet also philosophical: for at its heart is an argument about what humans are, and what we should choose to be.

The usually overlooked yet significant reality of our cultural moment is that we live with wildly variant and often intensely antagonistic views of what humans are. Philosophical anthropologies, substantive answers to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” underlie and motivate vastly different approaches to technology, humanity, and the future. Are we just computers, for example, who are destined to evolve our own mode of extinction? Are we beings whose embodied life is essential to our humanity? There are many more options than these, but these two represent poles in our culture, the first in various permutations dominating Silicon Valley and many of the fields of natural science, especially neuroscience, the second argued by prominent intellectuals with a humanist bent, like philosophers Charles Taylor and Hubert Dreyfus, or psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist.

Colvin’s argument is that the “deeply human skills” we’ll need to set ourselves apart in the economy are skills that rely on our embodiment, our emotional life, and our desires to interact with members of our own species. “To look into someone’s eyes—that turns out to be, metaphorically and quite often literally, the key to high-value work in the coming economy….” In short, he sees the new economy requiring a shift from an emphasis on thinking to a focus on feeling. Rather than focus on what we know or think, “The skills that become increasingly valuable as technology advances are about what we’re like.” On Colvin’s view, the distinguishing human attribute in such a world is empathy, which he sees as understanding how other people feel and responding appropriately. Chapter Four, “Why The Skills We Need Are Withering,” provides a compelling case for the way in which new technologies, particularly social media, actually undermine the skills we most need, for example, the ability to talk to people in person.

Drawing on research about face-to-face interaction, Colvin argues not only that such engagement makes groups more intelligent than virtual gatherings, but that they also make us more intelligent as individuals; yet social media tends to degrade precisely these sorts of skills. Colvin’s point is to remind us of a basic but often neglected fact: technology does not just change the economy; it changes humans, too. As a result, he argues that “people who master the human abilities that are fading all around us will be the most valuable people in the world.” Colvin devotes the rest of the book to an exploration of what those skills are, and thus Humans are Underrated is primarily a brief for the economic importance of empathy, or what Colvin call the “irrational” (as opposed to economically rational) part of us, and he provides numerous stories and examples of the importance of human skills in areas as diverse as medicine and the military.

Humans are Underrated effectively demolishes the idea that pure technical know-how is all that matters. Colvin sees clearly that combined technical skill and empathy make the best combination in the coming economy (this has likely always been true), but pure people skills themselves are a huge asset, and this leads to a part of that book likely to be controversial to some readers. Women are statistically much better at the empathy-based skills Colvin explores, a fact which leads him to devote the penultimate chapter to the question, “Is It a Woman’s World?” (Colvin’s answer is basically: yes, though men need not despair of employment). One of the fascinating bits of data Colvin presents is the fact that women are the single most important predictor of a group’s intelligence: the more women, all things being equal, the smarter the group. Teams are themselves more important than ever, he argues, because the human intelligence of a team adds value that does not seem replaceable in the foreseeable future by computers.

Besides doing away with the idea that nerds will inherit the earth, Colvin also draws on a large body of research (and there is much more that could be cited, particularly from economic geography) to show that our bodies and location matter. Philosophers like Hubert Dreyfus, who wrote On the Internet and What Computers Can’t Do, have for decades presented sophisticated arguments (often inspired by French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty) about the importance of our embodiment and our emotions, and one can also look to scientists like Antonio Dalmasio for compelling evidence of emotions’ power over reason. All of these thinkers are taking sides in a very old debate amongst modern philosophers, with one side represented by Hume and his dictum that “reason is the slave of the passions,” and the other by those optimistic philosophes, like Voltaire or Diderot, who thought that the rule of reason was within easy reach of humanity.

Colvin is clearly on the side of Hume, because, he would argue, that is where the data point. But as a sustained and persuasive argument for the importance of empathy for our humanity, Colvin is doing more than taking sides on the important question: do humans have a future in a world dominated by computers?

He’s also making his own indirect contribution to philosophical anthropology. Humans are the only species that asks what it means to be the species that they are; moreover, every way of living as humans is a choice of one vision of humanity over another. One of the great delusions spread abroad by technology’s apostles is the idea that technologies (and the world they create) develop on their own accord; that there is no crucial role of human agency shaping what kind of world our children will live in. We are the ones who choose what we think is essential to our own humanity. This is not to say the data aren’t crucial; but information alone does not tell us how we should live and what kind of world we should create. That requires the exercise of freedom, and we express our distinctively human freedom in deciding what it is that does and ought to characterize our humanity.

Peter Berger, one of the great sociologists of modernity, says one of the distinctive features of the modern age is the dramatic increase in the amount of choices humans must make. People did not use to choose where they lived, what job they would have, who or whether they would marry, etc. All of those things have become choices, and this radical increase in choice is something we owe largely to technological innovation. Now technology has become so advanced it has forced a new choice upon us: the choice to be human or not.

Biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics produce apocalyptic scenarios for a good reason: depending on your view of humanity, they really could spell its end. What we should be clear about, however, is that we are making choices every step of the way. Colvin is asking us to choose, in our own economic self-interest, to be sure, a vision of humanity that values embodiment, physical proximity, emotions, eye-contact, and touch over a vision of humans as software trapped in mortal coils, ready to be sloughed off for an imminent immortality in the cloud.

We can’t avoid big questions, or taking sides. No one will choose for us. Being human means accepting responsibility for the shape of humanity and society. Whether we will live in an economy that supplies people with dignity and work is profoundly conditioned by the innovations that scare and excite so many. Conditioned, not determined. We will decide. Humans are Underrated is an excellent book not simply because it is well-written, informative, and engaging, but because, mild as its tone is, as far from fear-mongering as one can be, Colvin cares deeply about what kind of people we decide to become.

That thrill of tangible mortality we feel on the edge of a cliff? It is also the thrill of freedom, the terrifying and exhilarating truth that as shaped as we are by the world around us, what our lives – and economy – will ultimately be lies in our hands.


Samuel Loncar  is a philosopher and scholar of religion and editor of theMarginalia Review of Books, currently teaching at Yale Divinity. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including philosophy and poetry, science and religion, and the academic-public divide. His speaking and workshop engagements include the United Nations, Oliver Wyman, and Trinity Wall Street’s retreat center.  His website is Tweets @SamuelLoncar.


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