The acclaimed journalist and author on the role of humans in the workplace as technology takes over.
In an age of automation, robots, and artificial intelligence, there would appear to be cause for concern about the long-term fate of the workforce. The big question: Will there be any jobs left for people to actually do? Geoff Colvin, senior editor at Fortune Magazine and author of the book Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, thinks such dire talk is misguided. Yes, humans will be increasingly displaced by technology, but there will continue to be jobs that people can do better than machines. He spoke with GO about the inherent advantages of human workers, the commoditization of skills, and why women are likely to fare better than men in the jobs of the future.
GO: Why did you decide to write this book?
Colvin: We’re seeing these incredible advances in technology, like self-driving cars. It’s truly beyond belief. We see technology starting to do the work of lawyers, doctor, even surgeons. I looked at this new world of work and concurrent trends in the economy. Jobs and pay were stagnating and living standards weren’t rising the way they had for 100 years. So, I began thinking about these issues, wondering if they were connected and suspecting that we were going through an historic skills transformation. I wanted to delve deeply into this enormous source of anxiety for many people.
GO: In your first chapter you say, “The software is getting rapidly better, people are not.”
Colvin: Our computing power doubles roughly every two years. And, while computers are getting twice as good every two years, I am not.
GO: In the book, you also say that being a great performer “is becoming less about what we know and more about what we’re like.” What do you mean by that?
Colvin: For 200 years, the skills that have been economically valuable have been those we could acquire in school or from books: math, science, writing, etc. But these are all things that technology is doing increasingly better than we are. So, if we keep trying to become more valuable, economically, the way we’ve done it for the last 200 years, then we are pitting ourselves against technology and we’re going to lose. Instead, we need to redefine valuable, which isn’t the same as important. We need a fundamentally different way to become economically valuable and that, I propose, is going to involve our deep, human skills.
GO: You predict a workforce transition from knowledge workers to relationship workers. Can you elaborate on that?
Colvin: Absolutely. Knowledge worker is the term coined by Peter Drucker in the 1950s to describe the workers who’d be most valuable as economies became more information-based. Today, the most valuable are relationship workers, because technology can replace nearly every other skill. We are hard-wired to have relationships. The only way we were able to prosper as a species was through social interactions with other early humans, and so we value these for the deepest of reasons. It isn’t something we think about, it’s just what we do; it’s part of the definition of being a human being. And so being good at these relationships, being able to read other people, to understand what they’re thinking and feeling without words being spoken, these are valuable and innately human skills.
GO: What are some of the activities that computers could do better, but humans will continue to do nonetheless?
Colvin: As long as human beings are in charge we want to be able to hold specific, identifiable people accountable for certain decisions and certain outcomes. Consider court trials. There is actually quite a lot of evidence that in some kinds of cases, at least, software could render judgments that were as fair as those rendered by judges or juries. Some were arguably better because the technology can weigh more factors and do so more objectively than humans. Still, it seems quite unlikely in the near future that humans will entrust trial judgments to technology. Many other examples are turning up. There is current discussion about artificial intelligence enabling drones and robots to choose military targets. I don’t think we’re ready to remove human accountability in areas like these.
GO: You identified empathy as the most important skill of the 21st Century.
Colvin: Absolutely right. If we reach the conclusion that skills of deep human interaction are going to be the best way for humans to be economically valuable then empathy will be foundational. It isn’t just about feeling someone else’s pain, it’s also the ability to discern what another human being is thinking or feeling and to respond in some appropriate way. Once you can do this, you can have a rich relationship with someone and that’s why we are seeing this explosion of interest in empathy right now.
And I’ll point out that the research is very clear: On average women are better at empathy than men are. This doesn’t mean every woman is better than every man, however. While women are better, every person, man or woman, can get better. I point this out because I need to reassure my fellow men that we are not doomed to irrelevance. We can get better and we must get better on average. The wise among us will do this.