Humans Are Underrated serves up two different books in one, each interesting in its own right. The first offers an overview of recent developments in smart software and artificial intelligence: the bright future of driverless cars; IBM’s Watson and its skills at Jeopardy and medical diagnosis; the software of Narrative Science, which can write up stories and, in some cases, cover events like a human journalist. The overall message is sobering: The machines are now able to copy or even improve on a lot of human skills, and thus they are encroaching on jobs. Not everyone will prosper in this new world.
The second and more original message is a take on which human abilities will remain important in light of growing computer efficacy. In a nutshell, those abilities are empathy, interpersonal skills and who we are rather than what we do. This is ultimately a book about how human beings can make a difference and how that capability will never go away, a description of the likely future and a prescription for how you or your children will be able to stand out in the world to come.
Geoff Colvin puts it pretty simply: “Rather than ask what computers can’t do, it’s much more useful to ask what people are compelled to do.” And what we are compelled to do is to contact other humans and seek value from them.
The theme of empathy recurs repeatedly. For all the virtues of software, it just can’t bring the same connection that human employees can. Good (human) managers understand how to motivate, how to set expectations and when to offer rewards or perhaps enforce penalties. Face-recognition software may be able to judge our moods, but it doesn’t come close to having the same flexibility of response as a human who can hear and interpret our personal stories.
Colvin presents the interesting hypothesis that today, empathy seems to be declining and narcissism rising, possibly because we are obsessed with the superficial use of social networks. But is this so? Contemporary America just put its stamp of approval on same-sex marriage, even though a strong majority of people are not gay.
The best parts of the book are about the military, an area where most other popular authors on automation and smart software have hesitated to tread. In this book you can read about how much of America’s military prowess comes from superior human performance. Future gains will result from how combat participants are trained, motivated, and taught to work together and trust each other and from better after-action performance reviews. Militaries are inevitably hierarchical, but when they process and admit their mistakes, they can become rapidly more efficient.
If machines and smart software carry any major lesson for our world, it is that human teams matter more than ever. That’s the best and most important insight in this book. Another lesson is that the future, including future jobs, will be more and more about telling stories. That includes telling stories to motivate and organize people, telling stories to express empathy, and telling stories to make people happy. Again, the liberal arts will be a lot more important in our future than many people think.
Humans Are Underrated is a worthy addition to the growing collection of books about the new economy, in which, to quote Marc Andreesen, “Software eats everything.” It can serve as a good introduction to its core themes, but even if you’ve read all the other books in the field, it is still valuable for its insights into the enduring value of human performance and teamwork.
Tyler Cowen reviewed this book for The Washington Post.