Humans vs. Machines: We Win…

I just finished reading an interesting book called Humans Are Underrated by Geoff Colvin. It was recommended to me by a friend and colleague who tends to buck the pro-technology trend in education and is highly skeptical of the benefits of AI.

Implicitly, the book touches on the common human need to feel special. Freud called this need “self-love” and illustrated how the ego is constantly trying to protect itself from blows inflicted by science. It is perhaps also self-love that motivated Descartes’s theory of the “animal machine”, whereby animals are construed as automatons devoid of reason. No matter the feats of animals and machine, we humans will always be their superiors in intelligence.

And then came artificial intelligence…

Today, there is no activity immune from being overtaken by machines. Even in fields where machines are still not up to par, it’s becoming increasingly unwise to wager they couldn’t improve to a point where they would outperform humans.

This is where Colvin’s main thesis proves clever. He suggests that we shouldn’t ask what computers cannot do better than humans, because they likely will at some point. For years, machines have consistently proven naysayers wrong (yes, they can read facial expressions and beat us at complex games). The more relevant question is rather: what are the tasks that we humans will always insist be performed by other humans, even if computers could do a better job? (42) For instance, would we accept a machine as a leader? Prefer a computer over a flesh-and-blood nurse or a doctor? Follow a robot as a fashion icon? Trust a drone to select enemy targets? The reasons for us choosing humans rather than machines may not be rational, as computers may be or become better at making judicious decisions, establishing data-driven diagnoses, creating new garment combinations, evaluating enemy risk, etc., but we do so for intrinsically human reasons of connectedness and social bonding. Colvin’s point is that any activity that involves building relationships (brainstorming, collaborating, leading) and forming emotional bonds (teaching, counselling, inspiring) will always be entrusted to humans, no matter how good machines get. These are future-proof activities that will always have high value for us. Those excelling in these tasks will be in high demand no matter the state of technology.

Now, for those who would use this book as ammunition against technology, a few clarifications are in order. On the one hand, Colvin does warn us against its pernicious effects, especially in activities that cut us off from perceiving nonverbal emotional cues. IT detracts us from in-person interactions and, as a result, makes us less emotionally insightful. However, what Colvin has in his crosshairs is a specific type of digital activity: social media (Facebook, Instagram, etc.). He points to studies that establish a link between social media and a decline in grades, well-being and happiness, empathy, sociability, trust, etc. Conversely, there is evidence that face-to-face interactions make us more productive, healthier and smarter because they allow us to stay attuned to our social nature. “Social media are the enemy of empathy” (82), he claims pithily.

The author also makes clear that other online activities do not have the same negative effect (62), a clear indication that not all technology is nefarious. In fact, he extols the virtues of technology (58-59) and its benefits to humankind. In some cases, he claims, technology can even improve human interaction (112) and surpass in-person experience, e.g. in teaching basic knowledge (198) and in virtual simulations (199). In his words: “IT can sometimes help us acquire interpersonal skills more effectively and efficiently than actual in-person experience can” (199).

What lesson should we draw from this? Technology is a tool—good or bad. What’s important is that it remains a tool, a means rather than an end. We know we’re on the right path when it remains subservient to the fundamental purposes we pursue as humans.

Donald Ipperciel

CIO, York University (@YorkUCIO)