Jack Covert Selects

Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will

August 06, 2015


Geoff Colvin asks (and answers) As machines get better than us at almost every task—mental and physical—what jobs will be left for us to do?

Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will by Geoff Colvin, Portfolio, 256 pages, $27.95, Hardcover, August 2015, ISBN 9781591847205

Mainstream economists have always believed that advances in technology are a net benefit for jobs, because with increased productivity comes increased income and demand, growing the economy and creating more jobs in the long term than said technology displaced in the short term. And that has always held true… until now. (Cue Jaws theme; dolly zoom in on a computer.)

To begin his new book, Humans Are Underrated, Geoff Colvin defines the three major turning points in how technology has affected the nature of work in the past: the rise of industrial machinery like the power loom that replaced skilled artisans on a large scale; the rise of electricity in the early twentieth century that made mass production possible, brought more complicated machines and a level of skill back to the shop floor and ushered in a new class of managers, and; the rise of information technology in the 1980s that replaced many “medium-skilled jobs—bookkeeping, back office jobs, repetitive factory work.” Each of these followed the standard economic progression of growing the economy, creating more jobs, and increasing the quality of life for most people on Earth over time.

Colvin tells us that, “Now we are at a fourth turning point.” Information technology (infotech), computers, and robotics are taking over increasingly complicated tasks, coming for workers at both the high and low ends of the economic spectrum. At the high end, information technology is taking over the tasks of our most educated professionals—lawyers, doctors, and professors. And at the lower end, automation in the form of things like self-driving cars is coming for taxi drivers’ jobs. So much for worrying about Uber drivers, I guess.

And this trend is attached to Moore’s law, which means it is advancing exponentially while humans remain… well, essentially human. Colvin puts it in rather bleak perspective.


More broadly, information technology is doubling in power roughly every two years. I am not—and I’ll guess that you’re not either.


The one thing that holds true, though, is that all technological turning points have also shifted the skills that are most valuable in the economy. For all the derision we now treat the industrial economy and industrial education, the need for a more educated workforce to operate the more sophisticated electrified factories and manage the scale of enterprise it made possible expanded the reach and value of education. As Colvin notes:


The high school graduation rate rocketed from 4 percent in 1890 to 77 percent in 1970, a national intellectual upgrade such as the world has never seen.


So the question now is, what skills will this fourth turning point make more valuable? What kind of work will be left for us to do?

Well, it turns out that remaining essentially human actually is the answer, and becoming even more so is how we will become more successful. We must still solve incredibly complex problems, but they are increasingly—as they were in the earliest days of our species—problems of social interaction. And that requires a more fundamental and more profound social intelligence and empathy.

We are, after all, social animals, and Colvin tells us that, more than anything, “Social interaction is what our brains are for.” In a world of machines that are becoming smarter and more skilled at complex tasks than us, that deeply human work is rapidly becoming our most valuable work.


[T]he meaning of great performance has changed. It used to be that you had to be good at being machinelike. Now, increasingly, you have to be good at being a person. Great performance requires us to be intensely human beings.


But those very interpersonal skills are in sharp decline. And it is largely due to—you guessed it—information technology. As Colvin says:


It’s doing much more than changing the nature of work. It’s also changing us.


A lot of technologists like to argue that our social life is blooming like never before because our social interactions and friendships are no longer confined by proximity. But that proximity is what is most important to becoming more emotionally insightful and empathetic. When you’re texting or on a social media site, there are no facial expressions or body language to read, eye contact to make, tone of voice to hear, none of the nonverbal cues that we use to learn about and respond to those around us in real time. And it is these social skills that will be most highly valued in a world where machines can do almost everything else.

Our jobs will become, more and more, to be with each other: reading one another, empathizing, collaborating, and creating with groups of people, or leading them. It is not that intelligence is no longer important. It’s that the kinds of intelligence that are most valued are changing. Colvin puts it more succinctly:


Engineers will stay in demand, it’s safe to say, but tomorrow’s most valuable engineers will not be geniuses in cubicles; rather, they’ll be those that can build relationships, brainstorm, collaborate, and lead.


In short, the value will shift from “knowledge workers” to “relationship workers.”

A 2013 Emory University study found evidence that reading fiction improves empathy, because it allows readers to take on the emotions of the characters in the book. But as Nicholas Carr documents so well in his book The Shallows, spending too much time in front of screens and on the internet is actually degrading our ability to focus and read longer form writing like good fiction.

So we must be vigilant in how we use technology, or it will use and replace us. We must learn, and teach our children, to value face time over screen time, to practice empathy everyday, or that muscle will wither along with our best chance at success. The opportunity is that, while machines take over the more physically and mentally excruciating tasks, we can create more truly connected, profoundly human lives—and businesses—in the process.


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