The Warm Human and the Cold Machine



We increasingly talk about the advancement of automation and robots as an opportunity for humanity rather than a threat. But the continued dualism of our thought puts us at risk of oversimplifying and narrowing rather than widening out our thought – particularly when it comes to our idea of the warm, emotional human.

The central premise behind the idea that The Future of Work is Human is that there are things that robots can do better than us, and there are things that humans can do that robots can’t. So, the argument runs, let’s focus on building robots to do the things they are good at. We know for example, that a free app or even a simple pocket calculator can provide the answer to the sum 543,816 divided by 37,443 faster than a maths professor. We also know that a three year old girl can differentiate between a photo of an egg and a photo of a pebble far more accurately than a powerful computer.

The future of work is human because the rapid development of robots (my shorthand term for a whole host of new tech) enables us to free up the complex and amazing human being from shelf stacking, refuse collection and repetitive administrative processes. These humans can then be put to work using their unique human abilities and potential.

Of course, it doesn’t take long before these discussions move quickly to emotion. Although there is an acceptance of the kind of fundamental ‘cog-nitive’ differences between people and robots, it is when we move into the area of emotion that people really get excited. The conversation turns sharply to ideas of ’emotional intelligence’, ’empathy’ and ‘understanding’. There is enormous power in these ideas and it is a great short cut into the whole area of the future of work being human (particularly for HR people).

The danger with this way of thinking is that we begin to narrow our idea of being human too much. That the person is an emotional, expressive being measured by the size of the gap between the warm human and the cold machine. This has begin to extend into criticisms of those, particularly public figures, who keep their emotions private. We know that some humans are less expressive than others and internalise or share their feelings in different ways. We need to challenge this sub-narrative that those people are ‘repressed’ a ‘cold fish’ or somehow score less on the ‘how human are you?’ test.

The exciting concept about the future of work for me is that it is not a linear unfolding. Our new paradigms need to be of unpredictable events and movements. We don’t believe in acorns growing into oak trees any more. We need to be cautious of ideas built on a model that an emotionally insular person, goes through a process of emotionalisation and comes out the other end as an expressive fully formed human. The new reality is that there is no beginning, middle and end. The metamorphosis is never complete and permanance is replaced by transcience. Simplicity is rejected in favour of embracing complexity.

It was a mistake to ever talk about the human condition. As our idea of humanity develops – challenged by an implosion of the future into the present – we can’t lose sight of the principle that there is no such thing as a single template of what it is to be human.


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