The Future of Work

By Steve Woods in Artificial Intelligence

A Threat to the Future of Work

On May 11th, 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world chess champion Gary Kasparov by 3½ to 2½, in a match that formed a pivotal moment in the history of man vs machine, and because of that the future of work.  One of the skills that had been thought to be uniquely human had fallen.  Over the next two decades, skill after skill followed this path. Recognizing images, driving cars, composing music, writing, translating, and walking all became tasks that machines could do either as well as humans or, in many cases, much better than humans.

 

Since that time, the debate over the future of work has raged.  What is left for humans to do if computers are consistently better at almost every task we throw at them?  The answers, to date, have failed to satisfy.  A general dismissal of the question often comes in the form of stating that we muddled our way through similar transitions in the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution.  Somehow, it is thought, we will just find our way to new jobs and new careers.

 

Maybe.  But maybe not.

 

First, the timeframe of the transition is orders of magnitude more rapid.  The agricultural “revolution” occurred over thousands of years, with the domestication of wheat starting in 8000 B.C., and crucial innovations like efficient collar harnesses for plowing not arriving on the scene until 200 B.C.  The industrial revolution was faster, but 123 years passed between Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the steam engine in 1712 and 1835 when George Stephenson built a 30-mile railway from Liverpool to Manchester.  Today, much more sweeping changes are happening in years or, at most, decades.

 

More importantly, the way that we are currently looking at the question, we are unlikely to succeed.  For starters, we keep looking for “tasks” that humans can do and machines cannot.  Around those tasks, we try to construct jobs and we deem that the future of work.  As the past 20 years have shown, however, that list is rapidly dwindling and shows no sign of having any meaningful items left on it in a few decades.

 

What Question Would Illuminate the Future of Work?

The question we need to ask is not what tasks are we uniquely good at, but what situations are we uniquely good in.  It turns out that there are many situations where we seek out and enjoy the interaction that we have with our fellow humans.  A pleasant interaction with the wait staff in a restaurant or bar.  The thrill of being part of the crowd at a rock concert or sports event.  The confidence of consulting an expert.  The warm feeling of welcome imparted by the doorman at a luxury hotel.  These situations all become what they are because of the humans involved in them.

 

There is something else worth noticing about these situations.  They have a feeling associated with them, not just an outcome.  A drink dispenser or televised sports event is likely a more efficient way of delivering the outcome, but it does not deliver the same feeling.  The feelings of trust, caring, community, and excitement come from these situations and would not happen without the humans involved.

 

But why?  What are the humans doing in these situations that is meaningful?

 

Humans have a unique set of abilities, often lumped under the term “Theory of Mind” to attribute mental states such as beliefs, intents, desires, and knowledge, to oneself and to others.  We also have the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from our own.

 

This Theory of Mind ability means that when we are interacting with other humans, individually or in crowds, we are constantly observing them, making decisions about their state of mind, doing things to demonstrate our state of mind to them, and drawing feelings from the entire interaction.  This ability also means that there are situations and experiences that AI can never replace humans in until AI becomes something we deem to have a mind, sentience, and feelings.

 

What is the Future of Work?

With a lens into where humans can succeed that Artificial Intelligence can’t, we can start to piece together the types of jobs that the future might value.  They share a common thread of human to human relationships.  Whether it’s the trust that an expert builds, the community that an influencer guides, the network that an executive builds, or the compassion that a service expert engenders, the jobs of the future are those that trigger “theory of mind” assumptions and build feelings of trust and community on top of those.

 

For those thinking of their own future in the world of work, rather than focusing on developing specific skills, the best path would be to focus on developing human relationships.  The skills, tenacity, discipline, empathy, and creativity to connect with others will be a more valuable investment in the future than learning any other skill.  Becoming a great networker, developing relationships, understanding others, and curating your empathy for your fellow humans will take you further in the job war against AI than any technical ability.

Steve Woods
CTO and Co-Founder