The robots are coming

The past several decades have seen substantial changes in the world of work. Gone are the days of company and employee lifelong loyalty. Diminished are the hierarchies and autocracies. Technology has changed how and where we work. Changing expectations about the role of work in our lives and about the nature of the employment relationship is leading to people increasingly doing freelance and project-based contract work, and this trend is expected to continue to grow. It’s not your father’s 9-5.

But continued technological advances are poised to change things even more dramatically. Automation has already eliminated a lot of jobs in certain industries. Now the rumblings are about machine learning and artificial intelligence. Computer programs that can think, learn, and perform even better than humans at tasks and jobs that we thought could only be the provenance of human hands and minds. Just one example are self-driving cars. This could not only disrupt but ultimately eliminate entire industries. Are you scared yet? Don’t be. Yes, the business and economic landscape will evolve. Yes, we will need to be alert, proactive, and flexible to respond to them. Our ability to do this successfully will rely on how well we capitalize on our humanity and acknowledge our liabilities. We need to collectively peer into the looking glass and be honest about what we see.

Despite a history of trying to make humans act like machines, we are beginning to learn that we work better when we are treated like humans. People want to be human at work. We want to fulfill our basic needs for connection, competence, status, belonging, mastery, and growth. People thrive when they are full people, not automatons, and businesses who can facilitate this are more successful than those that don’t. And yet, despite knowing this fact, we can’t seem to achieve it (trot out depressing statistic about employee engagement hovering at 30%).

We have a hard time letting go of deeply held beliefs about other people or the way things should be done. Take the job interview, as another example. We can’t seem to let go of the need to get that “gut feel” on a person, despite the fact that research has shown time and again that we make poor judgment calls without systematic methods to reduce errors. These are merely two examples of how our staggeringly beautiful minds are subject to an equally staggeringly long list of cognitive biases. When we think we are right, or rational, or logical, we often aren’t. We need to be more honest with ourselves about when our perceptions and decisions are subject to distortions and leverage proven tools and technology to overcome them.

We are intrinsically social creatures. We interconnected and dependent on one another, and our ability to collaborate has driven much of our success as a species. There is a dark side to this dimension, however, which is fear of the unknown “other” or tribalism. While our tendency to cooperate is a strength, it begins to break down in larger groups. To prosper, we need to learn to widen this net so that we can truly capitalize on the diversity of ideas and perspectives the breadth of humanity offers.

Humans have capacities that can’t be built into machines: social and emotional insight, creativity and ingenuity, adaptability, intuitive reasoning, humor, ethical judgment. We possess conscious self-awareness and self-determination. AI is coming. It’s time to embrace our humanity, and stop trying to act like machines.


“Forget teaching robots to be more human;we have a much more pressing and Herculean challenge: the challenge of teaching humans to be more human.” –Edewede Oriwoh

“Some people call this artificial intelligence, but the reality is this technology will enhance us. So instead of artificial intelligence, I think we’ll augment our intelligence.” –Ginni Rometty