Knowledge work, the stuff of the white-collar office worker, has been under evaluation this month due to the unprecedented COVID-19 led office shutdowns that have seen office buildings emptied and many of us working from home. While one benefit has been to find out which meetings could or should have always been an email, the challenge of physically disconnecting a workforce has also forced us to examine how effectively we interact with the technology available to us.
I want to talk about the relationship between humans and technology. As my work focuses around a ‘humanised’ digital employee for real estate agents named RiTA, I want to focus on the new wave of intelligent tools.
The very first conceptualisation of a ‘robot’ was in Homer’s Iliad, written in Ancient Greece and dated around the 8th century BC. Homer’s idea was that metal statues would animate to manufacture weapons for war – work previously down by soldiers themselves – so that the soldiers could conserve and apply their energy to their greater purpose, active soldiering.
This set the stage for the relationship between humans and technology to be of the master-servant kind. For too long, I think technology has been heralded as ‘disruption’ or even as the leader of change, but I think that sets up the technology as very much the master, and humans the followers. Homer’s vision, and one I share, is for technology as an enablement tool.
“Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.” – Christian Lous Lange.
The process of designing, developing and producing technology is very much about enriching and enabling human interaction. Human-led or human-first design is a powerful part of good technology, creating tools for how humans behave instead of how we want to train them too.
In the Dotcom explosion we struggled to keep up and adapt to technology. As the quantity, scope, scale and speed of information and communication all increased. The human condition in the western world increased at a fantastic rate – more wealth, living longer, larger spheres of influence. However, did quality of life come along at the same rate or was it a cost of abundance?
We see loneliness has become the public health equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The mental health epidemic has seen 25% of the population formally diagnosed, a statistic most feel to be conservative. We are also seeing the rise of the negative human impact of some technology – such as the compare and despair effect that prompted Facebook to remove the visibility of ‘like’ counts.
The use of artificial intelligence in the design and adoption of the tools we use to better perform our jobs is an opportunity to correct the master-servant paradigm and put human experience at the centre.
The key to getting our human quality back in work is to work collectively with technology to create space in our supercharged schedules for that human value to occupy. In real estate, this is using technology to create the time in our day to concentrate on what humans are best at and is central to selling and managing – relationships.
#toiletpapergate aside, I’d like to think we are humans directing ourselves towards a more intelligent future, and the most intelligent outcomes are achieved when we work collaboratively with technology.
The man versus machine debate is redundant in 2020. Since Garry Kasparov fell victim to the chess playing supremacy of IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, we know that in narrow contents of human v computer, computer usually has won. It now appears that the best results are obtained by combining the processing power of a machine with the judgement of a human. ‘Centaurs’, human chess players assisted by Ai, have had great success against purely Ai players.
The winners at work in the future will be those who use technology to process and automate the mundane, allowing people to focus on the most important work that is undeniably human. This applies particularly with knowledge workers and those who provide customer service or advice, such as real estate professionals. Let machines predict, let humans apply judgement. Let machines produce outputs and let humans focus on explanation and empathy.
Perhaps the future we are working toward is best summed up by Kasparov, following his chess defeat by Deep Blue, “Machines have calculations. We have understanding. Machines have instructions. We have purpose. Machines have objectivity. We have passion. We should not worry about what our machines can do today. Instead, we should worry about what they still cannot do today, because we will need the help of the new, intelligent machines to turn our grandest dreams into reality.”