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How to be human when technology is driving the new industrial revolution

As the World Economic Forum convenes in Davos, on the agenda for the assembled super-rich, politicians and celebrities will be the implications of a dramatic and impending shift in how our world works. This transition, the so-called fourth industrial revolution, brings us the convergence of effectively unlimited computer power, ever-smarter artificial intelligence (AI) and globalisation. They will combine to challenge our understanding of what it means to be a worker, and even what it means to be human.

Proponents of this revolution offer the promise that automation and AI will remove the need to work, or viewed less favourably, take people’s jobs. In truth, these dire warnings have been coming regularly for centuries.

But while it is easy to be alarmed by the implications of automation and AI, a careful look at the nature of humans, computers and how they interact points to a way forward.

Skill sets

In their prescient 2000 book The Social Life of Information (due to be re-issued) John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid explored why claims of an IT revolution often fall flat – remember the promise of a paperless office? Their answer was simple – humans are social creatures and the way we learn and interact depends on our interactions with others. You learn more discussing something with someone than by sitting alone, head in a book, memorising facts.

Artist Aram Bartholl’s Google Maps pin drop project. Amber Case/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Even our relationship with technology is mediated by our own social nature, and this will continue to be the case in a world going through rapid technological change. The things that IT has done thus far are, let’s face it, the easy stuff: maps are organised, websites published, contacts managed, and social networks made simpler. The hard stuff – and the things that humans do well – are the things that involve knowhow, experience and creativity.

The challenge is to structure our education system to prepare students for this future, in which the ability to be flexible, intuitive and creative will be vital. Then, we might get workforces with skills which are relevant to a global economy undergoing profound change.

In the UK, much has been made of the country’s relatively low position in international student tables. But academic performance only gets you so far.

Those “hard skills” – the cognitive and mathematical skills that are measured in academic rankings – are the things that machine learning and AI technologies will find easy. “Soft skills” like motivation, teamwork and social skills are vital for pupils, and workers, but far more difficult to replicate.

Calculating insurance claims based on a range of expenses? A computer can do that. Gently convincing a customer to change his or her mind on a business matter, or writing a decent Christmas carol? That is much harder.

Carol singers. No robots. Chantal de Bruijne/Shutterstock

STEAM powered

Ultimately the human touch also matters to how innovative an economy can be. Recently, there has been considerable emphasis worldwide on the encouragement and funding of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills. While the societal and economic benefits are clear – research on the most innovative UK firms has identified clear innovation and performance benefits from investing in STEM skills – these subjects are expensive to teach and suffer from considerable gender gaps. That has led to an series of policy commitments around the world aimed at increasing the number of students studying STEM subjects.

However, the risk of this approach is to lionise STEM at the expense of other subjects. In Britain, while science budgets have been largely protected from austerity, arts education has faced a much more difficult funding environment: departments have closed and A-level courses threatened with the chop. Yet this comes at a time when the UK creative industries are proving to be an economic success story, growing faster than the UK economy as a whole and employing over 1.7m people. The creative economy (the wider economy which draws indirectly upon creative skills), is larger still, employing 2.6m people, or one in 12 UK jobs.

Hogwarts delivers a boost to the creative economy. Elen Nivrae/Flickr, CC BY

But what is the impact of those creative skills? Our recent report The Fusion Effect, published by Nesta, finds that companies which combine creative and STEM skills outperform those that focus on just one, not just in one industry but in nearly all industries. The implication of this is clear – creative and arts skills are not simply a “nice to have”, but play a vital role in the economy.

Given that companies do better when they marry creative skills with STEM skills, recent efforts to shift the discussion from STEM to STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) are welcome and valuable. Together, these elements – soft skills, collaboration and creativity – are the types of things that humans do well, and will be hard for robots to replicate.

Of course the world faces innumerable complex challenges – climate change, economic inequality, gender inequality, and governance of these new technologies being just a few. It goes without saying that soft skills and artists won’t on their own prove to be solutions. But maybe – just maybe – a diverse workforce that is prepared to inspire, collaborate and innovate together may deliver solutions to these challenges which make the fourth industrial revolution a triumphant human endeavour after all.

This piece has been published in cooperation with the World Economic Forum to coincide with its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. You can read more here.

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