The Skill That Will Protect You from the Rise of Robotics in the Workplace

10/03/2017 12:27 pm ET

Since the term was coined by the brothers Capek back in 1920, robots – along with their less corporeal cousin, artificial intelligence (AI) – have been a source of fear and fascination for us mere mortals. Whether the Replicants of Blade Runner (virtually indistinguishable from the real McCoy); or the increasingly hostile HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey; or the always-ready-to-help Siri; these entities have ingrained themselves in our collective psyche. Increasingly, they are also becoming a part of the fabric of our working lives – and it’s there that they are proving to be a serious challenge to the dominance of homo sapiens.

In many industries, robots have already arrived, and their impact has been profound. Indeed, the automation of manufacturing has had a far greater impact on blue-collar jobs in America than the relocation of factories overseas. The ability of robots to handle repetitive tasks in dangerous environments – think “bomb squad” – is also well documented.

The continuing evolution of robotics and AI will eventually affect almost every kind of work; the rise of automated cars and trucks, for example, will dramatically reduce the need for human drivers. Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba, sees 30 years of pain ahead for us humans, as AI eventually works its way into every workplace and profession.

Ma sees this type of automation as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it will become increasingly disruptive, as AI “learns” to tackle more and more complex tasks. On the other hand, it can be incredibly liberating, as AI gives us more free time for travel, learning, and leisure. How we manage the transition from the human to the robotic workplace will be one of the central challenges humanity faces over the next few decades.

It’s true that artificial intelligence has made incredible strides over the past several years. Computers have beaten humans at all kinds of contests – chess, Jeopardy!, and (most recently) Go, the complex strategy game. There are investment algorithms that outperform human quants on Wall Street and, in the arts, robot-composed music that’s said to rival human-crafted melodies. But for all that, there are still limits to what AI can accomplish.

In a recent test, a Chinese AI machine took the notoriously difficult math portion of the Chinese college entrance exam – and the results were underwhelming. Why? The test features a large number of word problems that require language skills and critical thinking capabilities that are beyond today’s AI. That shouldn’t really come as a surprise: the limits of AI are on display every day as Siri and Alexa and Google Now struggle to answer complex questions that most humans understand innately.

The ability to parse language, along with the ability to apply critical thinking skills, are essential human strengths. Judgment is yet another: when the rules are black and white, robots and AI can apply the available information to make decisions – but in the real world, the rules are rarely black and white. Sifting through data, determining what is valid and what is not, and weighing it to help make decisions in ambiguous situations, are all things that humans do well – at least if we are trained appropriately.

Our performance in these areas depends on our ability to think critically. As we humans have become overwhelmed by information, our ability to make sense of it has never been more important. There are four major tasks involved in critical thinking, all of which are better suited to human intelligence than to AI:

  • Identifying the Issue: understanding the problem at hand and ignoring extraneous points that distract from it.
  • Identifying the Evidence: determining what evidence is relevant, how credible it is, and whether it is valid, logical, and – ultimately – believable.
  • Following the Evidence: using logic and information to move from our initial problem to new problems, new questions, and new ideas that may force us to reevaluate our thinking – but which ultimately lead us to a conclusion.
  • Reaching and Communicating a Conclusion: coming to a judgment about the issue at hand, and conveying and defending that judgment to others while remaining open to new evidence that could change our thinking.

Over time, machines will no doubt improve their performance in these areas, too. Until they do, however, humans need to apply their critical thinking skills to be as effective in as many spheres of life as possible – not only to co-exist with robots and AI, but to provide the examples and training these systems will need to share these responsibilities in the future.

Critical thinking is closely linked to another essentially human trait: creativity. Machines may be able to process data at dizzying speeds, but it is the human mind that can fuse data with judgment, linguistic skill, critical thought, and the ineffable spark of inspiration to create new ideas and insights.

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion, has a unique perspective on this issue. Twenty years ago, Kasparov became the first world chess champ to lose to a computer, IBM’s Deep Blue. In a recent interview with the BBC to promote his new book, Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, Kasparov argues that what we can’t explain about human intelligence is, in fact, what makes it unique.

"Everything we do that we know how to do, machines will do better, eventually,” he says. “But there's so many things that we don't know how we do [them] – and let's concentrate on that.”

In the final analysis, Kasparov believes that, “Intelligent machines will not make us obsolete – but our complacency might."

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