What does it mean to be uniquely human in the age of AI?
My book Life Pivot has taken many months to write but is born out of years of struggle. It has the tagline, How do you answer the question: “what should I do with the rest of my life”
There is an easy answer available to all. “It is not what you do but who you are. You are a human being not a human doing”
I value the sentiment but in reality most people on a Monday morning wake up and go somewhere, to do something with other people and with a goal in mind. That is part of being human. So, to not know what that meaningful thing is, causes anxiety and distress. Time is finite and precious. We all know it and it is best evidenced by what has become known as FOMO, (Fear of missing out).
Firstly let me validate the question: ‘Is there something else I should be doing that is more me”? If you have ever asked this question you are in good company.
A 2013 Gallup poll found that about 87% of people experienced little or no emotional connection with their work. That is sad and frustrating and the reason we experience a degree of anxiety over this is because internally we just ‘get’ the fact that we are supposed to be 100% ourselves and flourishing at something. But at what?
Assuming a 76 year life span, and a 39 hour working week (based on the Office of National Statistics 1997 - 2014), that means you are spending 1842 hours per year doing your work, which is 92 120 hours in your life time or 35% of your awake time in your life. Is it not really worth answering this question?
If you are not living and breathing and doing out of a true and crisp version of who you are then perhaps you are more functioning than living. This brings us onto AI?
What does it mean for us to be uniquely human in the age of AI? Computers are exceptional at functions. If you are only functioning then prepare to be disrupted. Not a week goes by without a naysayer predicting the end of human work and mass unemployment on account of the exponential growth in artificially intelligent neural networks. This means that many jobs that have historically been done by people will shortly be done by machines. Driving, fruit picking, burger flipping, warehouse work and more. In fact, anything that can be digitised will be. Where does this leave us? Are we up the creek without a paddle?
Perhaps. But let me share a more uplifting perspective. Maybe, just maybe, since the age of industrialisation we have been creating tools to help people increase their productivity and this has left many people feeling machine-like, or as a cog in a wheel. We are partly cyborgs. But, we are not cogs in a wheel. Maybe at this time in history we have an opportunity to ask again what it is that makes us uniquely human.
What can we do that cannot be disrupted by Amazon, Google’s Deep Brain, IBM’s Watson, or some PHD project in Shanghai we have yet to hear about?
I would suggest that for starters human beings are able to love and be loved. This means empathy, compassion, the sharing of stories which are not optimised, but raw. In fact, I once heard it said: ‘Never trust a man without a limp’. In other words we are all wounded healers. We can help others more out of our pain and struggle than out of our strengths and triumphs. Can an AI ever look at someone in the eyes and communicate loss, and longing, or hope and fear?
The ancient Japanese mended broken pots in a way that celebrated the break by filling in the break with gold. They believed that the brokenness was part of the story and it was beautiful. This art is called Kintsugi. Perhaps in the West we treat things as disposable and we may even project that onto each other at times.
What else can a human being do that an AI cannot? I would suggest that the ability to create, and imagine is uniquely human. I do not doubt that a neural network might one day imitate creativity through what is in reality an advanced form of pattern recognition but the ability to create itself? Is creation a process involving billions or trillions of neurones alone or is it in fact a process which brings into play all of us,: our weaknesses, fears, hopes, dreams, passions, capabilities, motivations, and personality. This creates a combination lock that even the crew of Oceans 11 would struggle to pick.
If I were to give advice as it relates to work to my 3 boys which I am not allowed to change for 35 years in the full knowledge that AI is happening it would be this. Do something that serves other people because the best tool to serve the complex needs of human beings will always be other human beings cracks and all. It is our ‘cracks lined in gold’ that qualify us to flourish in the age of AI.
In my book Life Pivot I go deep into what makes individuals unique not just from AI but from each other. We grow up following scripts handed to us from those we respect, and from our culture and we often become someone other than the real uncut version. Hence the 87% Gallup poll. But, by unearthing our uniqueness, and brilliance by re-discovering our true Capabilities, our Passions, our weaknesses and limitations, our personality (that will not change), and our motivations it is possible to thrive and flourish in any age that has been and any age to come.