Why “romanticising the loss of jobs to technology is like complaining antibiotics put grave diggers out of work”

“Romanticising the loss of jobs to technology is little better than complaining that antibiotics put too many grave diggers out of work. The transfer of labour from humans to our inventions is nothing less than the history of civilization. It is inseparable from centuries of rising living standards and improvements in human rights.

“What a luxury to sit in a climate-controlled room with access to the sum of human knowledge on a device in your pocket and lament how we don’t work with our hands anymore. There are still plenty of places in the world where people work with their hands all day, and also live without clean water and modern medicine. They are literally dying from a lack of technology”.

Those words were shared with me recently by former chess world champion and AI evangelist Garry Kasparov, during a discussion about how technology has helped or hindered our human experiences. (For those of you who don’t know, Garry famously lost his world-famous battle between IBM’s Deep Blue computer back in 1997 and for a while joked that technology had destroyed his career).

I work for the AI-powered technology company that was responsible for Garry’s loss and this question about what impact technology is having on our lives is one question which I come across daily. Most people’s knee jerk reaction to this question is often met with a healthy degree of suspicion, uncertainty, resistance and fear. There is of course nothing wrong with this response, but we must not forget the hugely positive impact that technology is having upon our daily lives. And I’m not just talking about the usual AI-references that technologists and so-called futurists talk about.

Yes, AI is helping to drive cars, fly planes and decide what you see in your newsfeed, but it is also combating climate change, helping to treat diseases and improve education at an unprecedented scale. Yes it will take away some jobs, but it will also be responsible for replacing them with better jobs (and more of them), just like it did with automated production lines in the 1900s or mainframes in the 1960s.

So when I hear the catch-all response that technology is harming our human-experiences I struggle to agree. Should we be concerned that AI-powered platforms like Facebook have harmed our experiences in the way that they have captured, managed and used our personal data? Yes. Do we need to be concerned about the ‘power’ that we willingly give to Google, Microsoft, Apple or Amazon every time that we ask Google, Cortana, Siri or Alexa a question? Certainly. But, we are not far away from a world where for every advert we didn’t want to see, product recommendation we didn’t care for or for every hour that we wasted staring at a black mirror, there will be an ill patient somewhere receiving crucial treatment that was recommended by an AI-powered assistant.

“Consumers will shift their allegiance from trusted brands to a trusted AI assistant”. Harvard Business Review (May-June 2018)

I have had a front row seat for most of my career watching marketing “professionals” use technology to screw up our experiences. Remember when you were very happy to receive an email from Groupon years ago, now we ignore most branded emails no matter how good the offer is? Or how you first felt when you went on Facebook and re-connected with people that you had not seen for ages, now it’s cool to #DeleteFacebook? Or how much you used to enjoy going shopping, in the days before you received location based notifications based upon what you’re doing, or requests to buy coffee by just “signing in with your face”? Have those personal experiences been harmed by misusing technology? In many cases, yes.

But to blame technology exclusively for the ADD-powered world we currently find ourselves in is missing the point. Why?  Because we don’t have technology problems, we have people problems.

This is a sentiment shared by Kasparov that I felt during his superb TED talk which I watched at the London streaming of the conference with One Question founder Sarah Parsonage early last year. Garry has a very optimistic view of the world where the future is a person and a machine working together to improve all of our experiences. In fact he goes as far as to sum up his worldview with a well-crafted ten-word sentence, “The best combination is a good human and a machine”. 

So let me leave you with some closing words from Kasparov, because when you ask me has technology enhanced or damaged our experiences, I can’t think of a better answer than the one he closes his TED talk with…

“We don't get to choose when and where technological progress stops. We cannot slow down. In fact, we have to speed up. Our technology excels at removing difficulties and uncertainties from our lives, and so we must seek out ever more difficult, ever more uncertain challenges. Machines have calculations. We have understanding. Machines have instructions. We have purpose. Machines have objectivity. We have passion.

"We should not worry about what our machines can do today. Instead, we should worry about what they still cannot do today, because we will need the help of the new, intelligent machines to turn our grandest dreams into reality. And if we fail, we fail, it's not because our machines are too intelligent, or not intelligent enough. If we fail, it's because we grew complacent and limited our ambitions. Our humanity is not defined by any skill, like swinging a hammer or even playing chess. 

“There's one thing only a human can do. That's dream. So let us dream big”.

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