Human, all too human
by Stefan Stern

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Should you say “thank you” to a robot? This is not a trick question, or a philosophical one. I am interested in the practicalities.

A few weeks ago I made the mistake of clicking twice on a website button while trying to buy something. I was about to be charged twice for something that I meant to purchase only once.

With some apprehension, I picked up my phone and opened up the app for my bank account. “How can I help you today?”, the app asked, after I had pressed the “help” button.

I was being invited to start a conversation with an app, a robot or, as we might also call it, artificial intelligence. This felt like a new experience to me, although it is of course possible that, without realising it, I had already been engaging with AI in different settings for some time.

But now there was to be a live dialogue. If I had been an anthropologist, I might have asked myself how I should launch into this conversation. As a speaker of a couple of foreign languages, I appreciated that it would be wise to try to keep my statements as simple and straightforward as possible.

This approach worked. After a few exchanges the app duly cancelled my phantom purchase, and honour (and cash) was maintained.

“Thank you,” I typed.

Why did I do this? Why thank a robot?

I suppose I felt a human need to express gratitude, to be courteous, even while realising that the machine I was speaking to had no such human feelings at all. I had gone through the looking glass (or at least through my smart phone’s screen) and embraced the world of AI. I loved my new robot helper.

This is not the usual account which some people offer about their experience of dealing with new technology. (And yes, I have been known to shout abuse at unco-operative supermarket “self-checkout” machines.) Horror stories attract more attention, and fears about job losses make for arresting headlines. But the more positive truth about technology could be that inventive and adaptive human beings will find ways of deploying new machinery and software while yet finding other things for human beings to do. As far as “creative destruction” is concerned we should not over-emphasise the second word at the expense of the first.

The Covid crisis has confirmed how much human sensitivity and skill is required in the caring professions, for example, qualities that even the most sophisticated robot still struggles to emulate. Homo sapiens and AI may both flourish if there is complementarity rather than competition between them – augmentation rather than simply automation, as Tom Davenport and Julia Kirby put it in their book Only Humans Need Apply: winners and losers in the age of smart machines.

Of course, technology will continue to advance, in ways that many of us cannot yet imagine. Drucker may have been correct, in 1967, when he famously declared that “the computer is a moron”, but it can no longer be maintained as a criticism. (“Hier irrt Drucker…!”)

“The human imperative”, however, also remains, as the title of this year’s Drucker forum indicates. And in order to “navigate uncertainty in the digital age” we will need the best of what both humanity and technology have to offer.

Recently I had another encounter as an anxious consumer with a problem to solve. My late father’s final electricity bill needed to be settled. I rang the energy company concerned, fearing the worst (not my account, I was not the registered payer, all the usual issues).

But instead the very human human being who took the call was both spontaneously sympathetic in an unrobotic way, and then also efficient. It was a thoroughly satisfying (and human) conversation.

“Thank you,” I said as we completed our exchange. It seemed like the right thing to do.

About the Author:

Stefan Stern is the author (with Prof Cary Cooper) of “Myths of Management: what people get wrong about being the boss” , and also of “How To Be A Better Leader”. He is Visiting Professor at Bayes Business School, City, University of London, and a former Financial Times columnist

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the 13th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Human Imperative” on November 10 + 17 (digital) and 18 + 19 (in person), 2021.

One comment

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