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Geoff Colvin: the human factor

We might be living in the Information Age where computers do all the repetitive donkey work for us. But, says author Geoff Colvin, we should not let this undermine our belief in the ability of humans to shape the future.

Hot on the heels of his bestselling books ‘Talent is Underrated’ and ‘The Upside of the Downturn’, Geoff Colvin’s latest begins with a question: “what will humans do better than computers?”

“The reason I ask this,” says Colvin, “is because we are seeing technology taking on work that had once been high-value jobs for people.” Not only that, the author contends, but these digital surrogates are executing tasks “better, faster and cheaper. Mainstream economists and technologists are today wondering if the long history of technology - once seen as something that increases employment and raising living standards - might be changing.”

US-based Colvin says that technology has done more than anything in human history to improve people’s wellbeing, but that’s all about to change. “Technology has always revalued human skills. That’s happening again: and we have to understand that it is happening and embrace it.”

It follows that we need to examine which human skills are becoming more valuable in the Information Age. The answer is, according to the author, “the things that we are hardwired to do from our evolutionary history. Empathy, relationship building, working in teams, solving human problems with other people… These will become even higher value skills, even if computers learn how to do them.”

The reason for Colvin addressing these issues now is that he firmly believes we are living on a technological cusp. We are now, he says, used to the idea that we live in a machine age where much of our intelligence is being replaced by digital technology. We no longer manually compile databases, send out utilities bills or even do the weekly shopping by hand, and this “is making our lives fantastic. Computers are brilliant at doing lower-order, repetitive, task-based human functions. Whether it is physically repetitive work in factories, or mentally repetitive work in offices, these functions have been almost entirely taken over by technology. The world is better off now that machines do it. It was always machine work. But humans used to do it.”

Colvin says at this precise point in time we are literally stepping up a gear, one of the best examples being that of the driverless car. “Even a few years ago people thought this was simply too complex a task for machines to carry out because of the masses of data involved and the split-second judgements that have to be made. The idea was always that this was the just one step too far for computers. But as we now know, it isn’t.”

Back in the office, one of Colvin’s favourite examples is the discovery phase in lawsuits. “Lawyers have to go through hundreds of documents to decide what is relevant. Now there’s software that does this faster, cheaper and better. This is because a computer can read 100,000 documents and see a pattern that no human would ever discern. This is a relatively repetitive function that you need years of law school training to even be allowed to do. In hospitals there are aspects of surgery that computers do better. I’m not talking about robot-?assisted surgery: I’m talking about areas where the robot is actually doing surgery.”

The inevitable consequence of the displacement of human skills by digital technology is that there will be a re-evaluation of what we can bring to the party if we wish to continue the trend of gaining a higher standard of living. “This raises the question of what will be the high-value human skills we need to stop us feeling underrated in a world where machines do everything for us.”

To address this problem, Colvin says he needed to work with two assumptions that seem to be contradictory. The first was that “we, and not technology, get to decide what’s important to the future of our economy. Second, we need to assume that a robot or a computer will come along in the next few generations that is simply indistinguishable from a human. If we can’t assume that, we have other, more pressing problems to address.”

Working with these criteria Colvin has deduced that the highest-value skill will be working with human interaction. “Technology will handle everything that doesn’t require humans to interact person-to-?person. What we will see is the big companies requiring more and more human empathetic skills. If you analyse what employers are asking for today, increasingly what they are saying it is they want people with relationship skills, social sensitivity, cultural sensitivity.”

Colvin says that when he talks to chief technology and information executives, what he is hearing is that brilliance in the computer realm is simply not enough. The days of hiring introspective, socially inept software gurus and locking them away in a room are over: “Today, top people in organisations are telling me that they need someone who can collaborate with the team, who can empathise with the customer experience.”

Technical aspects such as coding are available at low cost globally from developing economies, says Colvin. “That’s not enough. What companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon want is their brilliant people to work together.”

This is why, says Colvin, these are the companies that are building massive high-tech, centralised headquarters. “They want interaction, and the only way you can get that is by having real humans in a physical location.

“If you ever have lunch at Google you’ll know that food is good because this makes everyone want to go to the canteen. The queues are long, not because they don’t know how to serve food quickly enough, but because the company wants people to stand in line and talk to each other. The tables are long so you can’t sit in isolated groups. The chairs are a little too close together. This means you bump into the guy behind and get talking. They know this works and they measure it. The important thing is they get their people talking to each other.”

The catalyst that propelled Colvin into gathering together the insights that make up what is one of the best books about work for many years was simply that from his observations he could see that “we really are at a significant turning point. The trends that I’m writing about have been going on for decades.” But for the author, what was striking was the combination of factors that “suggested something fundamental is happening in the way that technology is affecting the world of work.”

‘Humans are Underrated’ by Geoff Colvin is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £18.00

Picture credit: Corbis

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