In his famous “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” lecture, the physicist Richard Feynman arguably seeded the concept of nanotechnology. While there is technical debate on Feynman’s actual role in catalyzing specific nanotechnology research, his more general point as implied in the title of the lecture is clear: there is no reason we should overcrowd in selective pursuits, intellectual or otherwise.
Almost six decades later, we appear to be doing just what Feynman implicitly cautioned against. We are cornering ourselves in the narrow view that crowds man and machine onto the same tasks. The latest witch hunt is underway and gaining momentum. The witches are the rapid innovation in robotics and computing, slated to replace humans in performing increasingly sophisticated – i.e. “whitecollar” – tasks and so displace jobs across the employment spectrum.
Says David Rotman in MIT Technology Review’s “How Technology Is Destroying Jobs”:
Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his collaborator and coauthor Andrew McAfee have been arguing for the last year and a half that impressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. Even more ominous for workers, the MIT academics foresee dismal prospects for many types of jobs as these powerful new technologies are increasingly adopted not only in manufacturing, clerical, and retail work but in professions such as law, financial services, education, and medicine.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s dystopian vision goes further still. According to Rotman, they believe rapid technological innovation has been gobbling up jobs faster than it is creating them. Technological change is thus causally connected to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States.
But even class warfare and total societal meltdown is apparently not an apocalyptic enough vision for some. According to Ray Kurzweil, Elon Musk and others, once artificially intelligent machines are able to design other machines, humans will become an endangered species. Machines will have exponential improvement as a clear evolutionary advantage.
Before you click “submit” on that application for the Mars One one-way mission to colonize our neighboring red planet, you should know there is an alternative view for a positive man-machine dynamic. While in the minority, brilliantly exquisite arguments exist for a symbiotic man-machine future. They celebrate that which is uniquely human – meaning and creativity – and that which, in my humble opinion, should be the primary business of humans in the first place.
In his latest TechCrunch article, David Nordfors makes a distinction between a task-centered and human-centered economy. In the task-centered economy humans have no value beyond the tasks they perform. Consequently, they are indistinguishable from machines and will be replaced by them for reasons of cost-efficiency as soon as technically feasible. In the human-centered economy on the other hand machines liberate humans from predefined tasks with prestated outcomes. This allows them to exercise the value that emerges from collaborating with other humans on open-ended, creative endeavors. Nordfors cites Gallup’s astonishingly low figure of worldwide employee engagement at work (13%) to surmise the opportunity cost between the two economies: $140 trillion over the next few decades in favor of the human economy.
In “Reinventing the Sacred” Stuart Kauffman pretty much puts to rest the notion that human brains can be framed as glorified computational devices and therefore are bound to become indistinguishable from algorithms as machines eventually attain astonishing sophistication. Kauffman draws from fields as varied as complexity, neuroscience and cognitive science and invokes Godel’s incompleteness theorem to point out that higher order human mental processes are beyond algorithmic enunciation. Philosophers such as Sanders Pierce and design thinkers such as Roger Martin have long proposed the ability of human minds to perform leaps of logic to get to creative solutions. Going beyond logical-based arguments and case study proof, Kauffman eloquently describes how machine algorithms, even based on the most sophisticated foreseeable AI technologies, can only solve problems which are bounded by prestated assumptions.
Why do I subscribe to Nordfors’ and Kauffman’s visions? For one, because in my life as a consultant I see the task economy that strips people of their uniqueness and dehumanizes them into glorified algorithm machines every day. It is the very reason why I have a job: because most of my clients have forgotten how to think and solve problems that aren’t tamable by an algorithmic framing. I like to call these “no precedent” problems.
We have for the majority of humanity’s history used humans for menial, mechanic, robotic, repeatable, efficiency-minded tasks. A select few were in the business of thinking creatively for the entire species. Technology has finally reached a threshold where creativity and meaning is accessible to everyone. In the 21st century, creating meaning and innovating will be democratized through technology. As David Nordfors rightly asserts, never yet seen avalanche of wealth and prosperity is waiting to be unleashed. We are on the verge of revolution of pace of progress that will forever eliminate the last form of human slavery: meaningless, dehumanizing, algorithmic work.
In closing, my test for outsourcing human work to machines is this: any task that has an output or outcome which can be prestated or even guessed, should eventually be performed by a machine. Humans should eventually be left to more or less exclusively deal with open-ended endeavors that generate new organic value (as opposed to efficiency derived value). Alluding to Peter Drucker’s thinking, effectiveness should be a human pursuit, while efficiency should be delegated to machines.
It is time for someone to update Feynman’s 1959 postulate for our 21st century reality: there is plenty of room at the top of human mental and emotional ability to more than occupy ourselves for centuries.