I just finished Robot-Proof, a newly released book by the president of Northeastern University on his vision for education in a future with AI. He concludes the book by writing,
The arrival of brilliant machines conclusively dispels the notion that a remunerative career is predicated on the study of an applied, “practical” subject. Going forward, machines will perform much of the work that was once the concern of these subjects, such as the simple analysis and application of facts to situations, or the management of data. Instead, the jobs of the future will demand the higher-order cognitive abilities and skills that are often associated with a liberal arts education, and that are pointedly inculcated through an education in humanics. As discussed throughout this book, the roles that human beings fill will be largely concerned with creativity. (Kindle Locations 2666-2671)
I agree that it makes less and less sense for humans to compete with machines on the basis of intelligence. Machines continue to conquer areas we felt were far away from their capabilities and they’re only getting better. I disagree that humans will fill the role of creatives. To see why, an earlier passage in the book is helpful,
The most popular TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk of all time is Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” recorded in 2006.11 In it, he famously argues that creativity, which he defines as “the process of having original ideas that have value,” is as important to today’s children as literacy. However, by stigmatizing failure and wrong answers in school, we train children to stifle it. “We don’t grow into creativity,” says Robinson. “We grow out of it, or rather we get educated out of it.” (Kindle Locations 1113-1117)
The above is problematic. I really like Ken Robinson, but he simultaneously defines creativity as, “original ideas that have value,” and in the same breath states that kids, “get educated out of it.” This is asinine. I’ve never met a child that truly had an original idea of value. When was the last time the Nobel Prize committee awarded the prize in chemistry or physics to a kindergartener? Never. Because original ideas of value are extremely hard to generate and take expertise and luck.
By recognizing this, it makes even less sense to continue to hang our future hats on the idea that creativity will be our saving grace against machines in becoming “robot-proof”. According to the world’s foremost expert on expertise, Anders Ericsson, the bottleneck of expertise is factual knowledge. You simply have to a know a lot of information before we can call you an expert and that takes time. It’s also what allows an expert to recognize differences in various problems and prescribe specific solutions that might work based on context.
This begs the question, “Who is likely to have more factual knowledge in the future, machines or humans?” I’d bet it’s the machines. In fact, solutions to complex problems could be as simple as accessing data, generating 50 million arbitrary solutions, modeling them, and running algorithms to solve them. Save the best solutions and iterate. In this sense, machines would be highly creative, not from any mystical “human-ness” they have, but just from the nature of their astounding processing capability.
It’s no surprise that some of the world’s most intelligent people have also been our most creative people when using Robinson’s definition because once we understand the interdependence it becomes obvious that true creativity requires massive intelligence and knowledge, plus luck. I see no future where computers don’t continue to outstrip us on the main ingredients in that recipe, which leads us to the real problem - value.
As machines continue to eat up economic value around the world, humans are left with less ability to compete on that metric. We are simply running out of real estate when it comes to economic value produced by humans. Of course, the Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world continue to be competitive, but their employees much less so.
The title of this article is a direct repurposing of Samuel Huntington’s book title The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. He was attempting to capture how global politics and international relations were changing. He saw this as the most pressing issue at the time he was writing it.
Now, it seems that we are struggling to figure out how to value human worth. We are using an old metric that doesn’t seem to quite fit anymore and probably won’t fit again. That metric is economic value. For several hundred years, economic value has more or less reigned supreme in how we value our fellow humans.
The more productive one was, the more wealth one created, and the higher living standards and quality of life became. It still feels somewhat right to inordinately value people that brought us world changing innovations like the steam engine, electricity, plumbing, flight, the internet, and the variety of communications tools we use today.
However, productive value isn’t the only value, others include justice, dignity, hedonic pleasure. There are still others such as the way a mother values her child, completely unrelated to economic value. It’s predicated on love and leads to caring. To care about something is to attach importance to it, to attach meaning and value, to believe it matters.
We are going to face a choice, continue using a bad metric for the current day or elevate a new one. We seem to be partly heading in that direction already. We don’t just value Gates for his economic contributions to the world, but also his philanthropic contributions. While it’s impossible to ignore his economic value, his philanthropic value is what sets him apart from the Wall Street bankers that Main Street loves to hate. His love shows that he cares and that display of compassion is what we value. He seems genuinely aware that his success is almost entirely a product of luck and therefore spreads it to others.
It would seem to me that as economic value loses worth as a metric for humans and the world becomes more abundant than any other time in history, the best value of human worth will be the extent of one’s caring relationships. We will find worth, dignity, and meaning to the extent that we have caring relationships. After all, mothers don’t lose sleep over their self-worth while holding their beloved children, providing them with love and warmth. Their sense of place in the world is secure because of the value and meaning these mother-child relationships of care bring, not because of the economic value they add.
Many of our largest problems will continue around this clash of values, whether it be in education (what should we teach?), economics (how much are the rich entitled to their wealth?), or politics (should we allow migrants into our country if they only have “low-skills”?). In fifty years, it would be wonderful to see us judging the value of fellow humans and nations not by their income or GDP, but the degree to which they care for others. We desperately need a new metric because we simply can’t compete with machines for productivity. However, we can forever value the worth of humans based on their ability to care for others.
The question, "How do we add value to the world?" is an important one. We have options and some are better than others. This means we also have a choice. We get to decide how we identify human worth. Do we want to live in a world where fewer and fewer humans have worth using a metric of economic value or do we want to elevate the importance of caring, justice, dignity, and love as metrics of human worth? I know my preferred answer.