Just what can’t computers do?

They drive cars and play chess better than us. But it’s really the wrong question. As technology takes over more and more spheres of our lives, the question to ask is what it is that humans must do.

computer chess
Jimngu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

As technology advances, we poor humans are getting desperate for sources of self-esteem. Everyone knows computers can play chess and Jeopardy! better than we can. They sort thousands of documents for relevance in legal cases faster, cheaper and better than lawyers do. They assemble electronic products in factories faster, cheaper and better than people do. They can drive cars better than human drivers can.

So we grasp at evidence of our continued superiority over the machine. Recent articles, for example, show that computers are still pretty poor at humor, and they make some obvious blunders as psychotherapists. Yet any comfort we derive from these facts is unfounded, because it overlooks a crucial reality: The technology is getting roughly twice as powerful every two years, while we humans are not.

Ignoring that reality leads us astray as we confront one of the center-stage issues of our time: How will humans create value and earn a rising standard of living when technology keeps doing more work better than we do? Specifically, we seek an answer in the wrong way by asking the wrong next question: What is it that technology inherently cannot do? While it seems like common sense that the skills computers can’t acquire will be valuable, the lesson of history is that it’s dangerous to claim there are any skills that computers cannot eventually acquire.

The trail of embarrassing predictions goes way back: Early researchers in computer translation of languages were highly pessimistic that the field could ever progress beyond its nearly useless state as of the mid-1960s; now Google translates the written word for free, and Skype translates spoken language in real time, for free. Hubert Dreyfus of MIT, in a 1972 book called What Computers Can’t Do, saw little hope that computers could make significant further progress in playing chess beyond the mediocre level than achieved; but a computer beat the world champion, Garry Kasparov, in 1997. Two excellent economists explained in 2004 how driving a vehicle requires such complex split-second judgments based on such a wide range of inputs that it would be extremely difficult for a computer ever to handle the job; yet Google introduced its autonomous car six years later. A technology skeptic at Harvard observed in 2007 that “assessing the layout of the world and guiding a body through it are staggeringly complex engineering tasks, as we see by the absence of … vacuum cleaners that can climb stairs.” Yet iRobot soon thereafter was making vacuum cleaners and floor scrubbers that could find their way around the house without harming furniture, pets or children, and was also making other robots that could climb stairs. It could obviously make robots that did both if it judged that market demand was sufficient.

The pattern is clear: Extremely smart people try to discern what computers can’t do, and it’s only a matter of time before computers do it.

Instead of studying technology in order to see how we’ll create value, a better strategy is to study ourselves. What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans, even if computers could do them?

When we flip our thinking in this manner, we begin to uncover the key to high-value work in the future economy. It’s the skills of social interaction — empathy, social sensitivity, storytelling, forming relationships, collaborating, leading, creatively solving problems together. These are the essence of humanity. As the eminent neuroscientist and psychologist Michael Gazzaniga has written, “We are social to the core.” We are hard-wired to interact with one another, using these skills, because otherwise, out on the savanna 100,000 years ago, we died. For us, skillful social interaction is survival, whether we like it or not, know it or not, acknowledge it or not. We won’t be devaluing those abilities anytime soon.

It isn’t just theory. As technology takes over more tasks, employers increasingly seek exactly these skills of personal interaction. At the top of their wish lists:

  • Empathy: It means discerning what another person is thinking and feeling, and responding appropriately. It’s key for organizations looking to create complete and meaningful experiences for customers.
  • Collaborating: The world is doing ever more of its work in teams. We form, exchange, improve, accept and reject ideas, and we improve our collective performance, through deeply human interpersonal processes that may happen even without our knowing it.
  • Storytelling: It may not be rational, but we humans find stories more compelling and persuasive than mere facts. Yet we aren’t moved by a story unless we can evaluate the teller, decide whether he or she is trustworthy, and gauge the true passion that he or she brings to it. We didn’t evolve to make that connection with a robot.
  • Creatively solving problems together: No matter how capable computers become, humans are still in charge of which problems need to get solved, and humans in organizations are constantly revising their ideas of what their problems and goals really are. Success requires group creativity and innovation.

As anxiety grows over more capable computers, worried workers must understand that technology isn’t the enemy. It’s merely doing what it has always done: revaluing skills, making some less valuable and others more so. Don’t ask what computers can’t do. Ask what humans must do — and be good at it.

Geoff Colvin is senior editor-at-large at Fortune and the author of Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will (Portfolio; August 2015).

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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