The Human Edge
It’s no secret that AI is changing everything around us. In many cases, we’re welcoming the benefits of this technology. But as machines start taking over tasks and roles that people have filled for decades, there’s growing uncertainty around what this means for humans in the workplace. Based on a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of American employees worry that AI machines could replace them. So says Greg Orme in his book, The Human Edge, published in 2019.
Orme goes on to say that AI machines may be faster and smarter in some aspects, but they fall short in areas where humans are particularly strong. The book will teach you how to make the most of your natural skills in order to add value in the workplace of the near future.
The three most powerful points I took from the book were;
Artificial Intelligence can match some human mental skills, and as a result, do some of our jobs. So be prepared for that, but also know there are skills that AI will never be able to have, like showing empathy
Rather than competing with machines in these areas, we can retain valuable roles in the digital economy by focusing on learning widely, developing our ability to find interesting questions and solutions, and collaborating with each other.
Living on autopilot means many people only focus on the next thing on their to-do lists, and miss the unexpected, unusual moments around them. But it’s these moments that could trigger the next big idea
AI can match some human mental skills, and as a result, do some of our jobs.
It’s the late eighteenth century and the nature of work is changing. Thanks to steam-powered machines, manufacturing is becoming faster, more efficient, and less reliant on manual labor.
Today, nearly 250 years later, machines are once again changing the world. But this time, they’re not replacing our arms and legs. The key message here is: Artificial Intelligence can match some human mental skills, and as a result, do some of our jobs.
Machines with logic and analytical skills, also known as Artificial Intelligence or AI, are everywhere. They’re in our smartphones, deciding which songs to play next. They’re in our homes, keeping a digital eye on what’s in our refrigerators and how clean our floors are. And they’re gaining a strong foothold in the workplace, too. Tech companies like Facebook and Google already rely heavily on AI, and other industries are next in line.
The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that AI will transform fields such as marketing, sales, customer management, finance, and human resources. And according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Management Review, 85 percent of companies believe that AI will help them succeed. However, this success comes at a cost. Just as machines took over from human factory workers years ago, AI is poised to take over certain jobs. In fact, this is already happening to routine tasks and roles. Think of the chatbots replacing customer care agents, and the self-driving cars that will make human taxi and truck drivers obsolete. Or consider AI that can filter through job applications or analyze blood and bone marrow for diseases. This advanced tech means that many new hires won’t need a desk in the open-plan office, just a bit of digital real estate in the cloud.
So, just how many jobs will AI take from humans? Well, researchers from Oxford University, the World Economic Forum, and a number of consulting firms have predicted that between 14 and 47 percent of jobs will go to AI – and that’s just in the next 15 years! If these figures have you worried about your job prospects, then you’ll be relieved to learn that it is possible to future-proof your career. Sure, AI has come a long way, but it can’t outshine humans in every area. Knowing this is the first step in developing your edge.
AI has gotten faster and smarter, but can’t replicate our uniquely human traits.
If you’ve ever watched a talent search, you’re familiar with this scenario: a singer takes the stage and it’s immediately clear that they know their stuff – each note is pitch-perfect. However, the judges, and you at home, aren’t quite convinced. Something’s missing. Perhaps energy, passion, or what people call the “X factor.” The contestant is skilled but doesn’t have what it takes to become a superstar.
AI is similar to this skilled-yet-uninspiring singer. The key message here is: Even though AI has gotten faster and smarter, it can’t replicate our uniquely human traits. AI’s capabilities are undoubtedly astounding. And why shouldn’t they be? The speed and power of computer hardware have developed exponentially since the microchip was invented over 50 years ago. To put that into perspective, consider this; if the smartphone had been built back then, it would have been the size of a 100-story building and needed 30 times as much electricity as the entire world produces!
Take all that computing power that we now have in our palms, and add the fact that computers are teaching themselves. Where humans used to write instructions for computers to follow, computers can now write some of their own algorithms. This learning is fueled by the data we create every second. AI machines scan that data, finding patterns and manipulating it in order to achieve whatever goals we set for them.
And that, right there, is the catch. AI machines can only work on goals that we set for them.
Artificial Intelligence systems are good at completing specific, routine tasks. Some are built to recognize faces, others to translate languages, and there are even machines that compose music. They may do all of this much faster than we can, but their knowledge and skills are limited to those particular tasks.
Humans, on the other hand, can learn about a wide variety of things, and we have the ability to find connections between what we learn. Evolution has gifted us with skills that many take for granted. The author sums these gifts up as the 4Cs – Creativity, Curiosity, Consciousness, and Collaboration. AI is nowhere near developing these capabilities, which is why focusing on these skills is precisely what you need to set yourself apart.
The ability to create is a vital human superpower in the age of AI.
Here’s a common movie storyline: A teenager abandons a sport that he’s talented in and passionate about because a parent doesn’t think it’s worth pursuing. You’ve probably watched something along these lines once or twice. Off the big screen, many people are dissuaded from developing their natural talents for similar reasons. And there’s a particular talent that everyone is born with that’s often suppressed by our environment.
The key message here is: The ability to create is a vital human superpower in the age of AI, one that we’re not always encouraged to embrace. Creativity is the ability to see beyond what exists and come up with new ideas. It requires us to let our minds explore different areas, sometimes called divergent thinking. We’re all born with this skill but, unfortunately, many of us lose it as we grow up.
American psychologist George Land discovered this when he tested the creativity of 1,600 children in the 1960s and 70s. At age five, a whopping 98 percent of the children displayed genius levels of creativity. But when that same group was tested at age ten, only 30 percent could be considered creative geniuses. At fifteen years old, that percentage dropped to 12. The sad truth behind these fascinating finds is that education tends to discourage creative thinking. Our schooling focuses on analytical thinking, following a logical order to reach a single, correct answer. Studies have also revealed that teachers consider creative personality traits like questioning, disagreeing, or veering off-topic as disruptive to the classroom.
Outside of the classroom, society also has some misguided ideas about creativity. And this can prevent many people from exploring their own ideas. A lot of us are told that only artists, experts, and brainiacs can be creative. Or that creative ideas emerge in unpredictable “a-ha moments.” None of this is true. Anyone can be creative, regardless of what they do. And it’s possible to prime our minds so that those “a-ha moments” come regularly. Unlearning these myths and others like them helps to unlock creativity. Which is what anyone who wants a place in the workforce of the future has to do.
Here’s some good news: creativity is becoming increasingly important in the workplace. In a 2012 survey of 5,000 adults across five countries, research firm StrategyOne found that eight in ten people think creativity is essential to economic growth. And in 2019, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report rated creativity as the third most valuable human skill, jumping ten places since 2015. Whether our creativity was discouraged at school or out in society, we can reclaim it and start using it at work.
Curiosity helps us gain enough knowledge to stay relevant.
In the previous blink, we learned why creativity dwindles as we grow, and why it’s more important than ever to rebuild it. The question is: Exactly how do we do it? Many things in life are the result of multiple components working together, and creativity is no different. Along with curiosity, consciousness and collaboration, creativity will differentiate us from AI in the workplace. And these skills don’t work independently. They actually feed into and build on each other.
So, for creative genius to kick in, we first have to develop another one of the 4Cs – curiosity.
The key message here is: Curiosity helps us gain enough knowledge to stay relevant and develop interesting ideas. Remember how creativity relies on thinking widely? Well, curiosity makes this possible by encouraging us to learn new, different things – something that AI machines can’t do. And since the life expectancy in developed countries is now close to 100 years, gaining skills and knowledge as the world changes won’t just give humans the edge over technology, it will also give us the option of changing careers in our 60-year-long working life.
But what’s the best way to use this curiosity? Should we try to learn everything under the sun, or become go-to experts in one subject? The answer here is a bit of both.
Curiosity comes in two types; wide-ranging and focused. Engaging the first means seeking out a bit of knowledge about a wide variety of topics, while the second involves mastering one or two areas. When you learn in both ways, you can make insightful, creative connections between different domains, just like great minds of the past have done. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, dabbled in math, music, anatomy, and even botany, all of which influenced his renowned artwork. And more recently, Steve Jobs was inspired to create beautiful fonts for the Macintosh computer by a calligraphy class he took during his student days.
Da Vinci, Jobs, and other successful people fed their curiosity by learning. You should do the same. Maybe you think you don’t have enough time, but dedicating just one hour of each working day to learning will make a difference. After all, it worked for Benjamin Franklin, the United States founding father who also invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, and more.
Get into the habit of asking the right questions.
Ever sat back to consider how far questions have brought us? If someone hadn’t wondered why we can’t fly, we probably wouldn’t have the luxury of air travel. This, and a host of other inventions we have today, started as questions in the minds of curious individuals. Asking questions is beyond the capabilities of AI machines. They can process the questions that we program them to, but they can’t come up with new ones of their own and, consequently, can’t form novel ideas. This is where being inquisitive – another aspect of curiosity – comes in handy for your career. The key message here is: Getting into the habit of asking the right questions is how we develop our own bright ideas.
The truth is, any one of us can ask a question. However, finding the right question or problem takes a lot more effort, and this is what sets the most creative people apart. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi learned this in a study on innovative thinking. He challenged 31 art students to select a few objects, arrange them together, and then sketch the arrangement. Some of the students chose their objects quickly, and spent the bulk of their time drawing – their focus was getting to the perfect solution. The other students spent more time selecting objects. Asking the right questions and finding the right problem was more important to them. With limited time remaining, they rushed through their drawings.
Six years after the study, only a third of the study participants had become successful artists – and they were all from the group that had taken time to find the right questions. If you’re wondering just how to ask the right questions, consider these pointers from some of the most innovative organizations out there.
First, remember that good questions don’t seek to confirm or clarify what you already know. They are open-ended and invite people to explore possibilities. Global design firm IDEO uses what it calls “How Might We?” questions. Here, the word “might” implies that there are many possible solutions, and this encourages a variety of responses. Over at auto manufacturer Toyota, they use a simple method established by the company’s founder in the 1930s. When investigating an issue, they ask “why” over and over again. That’s right, every answer is met with the question “why?” This happens a total of five times and it helps to uncover the root of the problem.
But here’s the thing, even when you do ask the right questions, you don’t always find the best answers. And this is why it’s important to continue asking questions long after you have a solution. By doing so, you’ll find opportunities to improve your solutions, or even change them altogether.
A change in habits and perspective will kick-start your creative ideas.
Anyone who knows writers or musicians will have heard about the creative block – that frustrating period when good ideas are nowhere to be seen. The bad news is: it doesn’t just affect artists. Whether you’re writing, composing, or solving a business problem, you’re fair game. But there’s good news, too. There are ways to make your creative blocks a thing of the past. The key message here is: A change in habits and perspective will kick-start your creative ideas, and keep them flowing.
The scientist Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favors the prepared mind,” and this is true of creative ideas. If you want more of them, more often, you have to prepare your mind through certain habits. Starting with being more attentive. Living on autopilot means many people only focus on the next thing on their to-do lists, and miss the unexpected, unusual moments around them. But it’s these moments that could trigger the next big idea. That’s how the microwave in your kitchen came about. Its inventor, Percy Spencer, was testing radar machines when he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. Through this small accident, he realized that the microwaves emitted by the machines could be used to heat and cook food.
So, when the unexpected happens, take a minute to think about it and understand exactly what might be going on. The next step on the journey to countless ideas is to get away. A new environment alters your thought processes by exposing you to different perspectives and ideas. There’s evidence for this in the fact that people who’ve lived in different countries score higher in creative thinking tests. And a 2015 study of fashion houses found that the most successful ones were led by directors who’d worked abroad at some point.
But don’t worry, you don’t have to book a flight across the globe. A nearby city, a different neighborhood, and even a new route to work are all opportunities to renew your perspective. As is the next habit that you need to establish. Hopefully, it’s something you’re already doing – getting some sleep. When you’re in deep sleep, your brain becomes flexible and easily connects different ideas, facts and events. In fact, participants in a Harvard University study were found to be 33 percent more creative after a nap. So, the next time you’re struggling to make a creative breakthrough, sleep on it.
Be conscious of how you use technology and stay organized.
Quick question: How often do you think you check your smartphone? If you’re thinking every 45 minutes or every 30 minutes, you’re way off. The United Kingdom’s communication watchdog reports that the average person checks their phone every two minutes. And the average time spent online? That’s about 24 hours a week. These stats suggest that jobs aren’t all that technology is taking. It’s also taking our time, and with it, our attention.
The key message here is: By being conscious of how we use technology and staying organized, we can reclaim our time and focus. Between all our devices, we’re constantly distracted by the information coming our way. As a result, our ability to focus is suffering. According to a study by Microsoft researchers, attention spans have dropped from 12 seconds to 8 since mobile internet was introduced. And this tech-induced inattentiveness can hold us back in the age of AI. Learning new things, finding interesting problems, and coming up with creative solutions all require uninterrupted attention.
So, how do we become more focused? We start by guarding our time against intrusions. Just because we can be connected constantly doesn’t mean that we should be. Think about it, do you really need to respond to your emails and messages as they come in? What if you dedicated 30 minutes in the morning and another 30 minutes in the afternoon to doing this? You’d have stretches of uninterrupted time to focus on the new subject you’re learning about, or a new idea you’ve developed.
We can even go as far as designating spaces for learning and creative thinking. The psychiatrist Carl Jung owned a house near Lake Zürich in Switzerland that he used as a thinking retreat, and Sigmund Freud turned a room in his London home into a sanctuary filled with books and objects to stimulate his mind. Our own sanctuaries don’t have to be lake houses or entire rooms. A desk at home, a seat in a favorite coffee shop, even a playlist that puts us in the zone will do the trick.
Unfortunately, despite these measures, inattentiveness might still get the better of us. And this is where we can benefit from mindfulness, a practice that enables us to reign in our wandering minds. By meditating often, or doing yoga, we can develop the mindfulness that will help us focus better, and become more conscious overall.
Collaboration is key to innovation.
Okay, so you’re learning, asking intriguing questions, and coming up with stellar ideas. Plus, you’ve regained precious time and attention. Congratulations! You’ve got curiosity, creativity, and consciousness sorted. Now, let’s say you’re working on a new idea with great potential. Imagine how much better it would turn out with the help of a whole team of curious, creative and conscious individuals? This is the last C that will put you ahead in an AI-filled workplace: Collaboration.
The key message here is: Collaboration is key to innovation, but it’s important to know when to team up and when to work alone. History books are filled with geniuses who we imagine working alone, intently focused on their projects. But this image of the lone genius isn’t quite right. A great idea may strike one person, but it evolves incredibly when others can contribute, and some of the best minds knew this.
Leonardo da Vinci had an entire studio of protégés helping him, while Benjamin Franklin established the American Philosophical Society, a group of peers dedicated to discussing life’s big questions. Collaboration brings a variety of perspectives and expertise to the table, increasing the chances of innovation. To build your own network of collaborators, you have to form what psychologists call “weak ties.” These are connections outside your strong relationships with family and friends, and they’re most likely to offer perspectives, information, or connections that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
You may not have a long commute, but you can meet different people by changing routes, going to different coffee shops and restaurants, and, most importantly, talking to new people when the opportunity arises.You can accumulate weak ties by increasing chance meetings. Bell Labs, where fibre optic cables and the first laser were invented, benefited from chance encounters. Its building in New York had hallways so long that people couldn’t see the ends. As a result, researchers from different fields often met on their long commutes from one point to another.
Once you have a network, don’t rush out and collaborate every time an idea forms. There’s a time for everything, and this also applies to collaboration. Before reaching out, ask yourself exactly why you need external input, and what the people you have in mind can offer. If you can’t clearly answer those questions, put some more solo work into your idea until you can.
What I took from it
AI is developing faster than ever and making short work of the routine tasks and jobs that humans have done for years. Rather than competing with machines in these areas, we can retain valuable roles in the digital economy by focusing on learning widely, developing our ability to find interesting questions and solutions, and collaborating with each other.
Look for meaning in your work. When our work gives us a sense of value and purpose, our motivation levels shoot up and so does the curiosity, creativity, and determination that we bring to our jobs. Look for ways in which your work makes a positive difference in other people’s lives, or think about the aspects of your job that you’re most passionate about. Finding and focusing on these will give you a newfound enthusiasm.