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The day of the machine is here: Are we human enough to seize it?

You’re an executive, an employer, or maybe an up-and-comer in your organization, but either way, you have surveyed the moment and you know that big things are poised to happen. Unlike the big things of the past — the internet or mobile — the change won’t be the result of consumers embracing a shiny new object or buying into a piece of Apple hardware that other manufacturers will swiftly imitate. The change that’s coming will be more diffuse, more comprehensive, and at once harder to see coming in specifics yet impossible to miss in general.

The world is about to get exponentially more intelligent. Our stuff will be intelligent, and the software that connects us to our stuff will be more intelligent. Paired with automation and robotics, that stuff will increasingly act on its own accord based on what it believes we want it to do. That intelligence will interrogate us, inform us, and enable us to grow . . .

. . . unless we aren’t human enough to let it. You’ve read the haunting warnings — someday soon, our robot overlords will decide that we are getting in the way of the algorithms we ourselves asked them to optimize. Many propose that a showdown between humans and machines is inevitable. The implication is that we must reject the machine in order to preserve the human.

My proposal is radically simpler: The day of the machine will make us even more human than we are currently. But my sunny outlook is only possible if we are human enough to seize the opportunity.

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A NAO humanoid robot, developed by Softbank Corp. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Unfortunately, not all of us are ready. Some of us are going to fear the day of the machines. By fearing it, they will hide from its advance. They may even ask governments and tech companies to protect us from it. Powered by that anxiety, their rational and valid concerns about technology’s advances will get magnified, then exaggerated — and for some, even converted into demons. If they persist in these concerns, they won’t benefit from the machine. They won’t get the same value from the future.

That’s why I say that the new digital divide will not be between the haves and have-nots. It will be between those who choose to let the rising tide of intelligent machines elevate their humanity and those who resist that enhancing, enabling force.

The causes of that resistance are manyfold. Very soon, we will publish a report explaining how psychological, emotional, and physical health contribute to people’s fitness for this future. Intriguingly, physical health significantly predicts how able people are to look ahead to the future of machine intelligence and see a possible path forward. Those who are the least healthy are 41% more likely than the healthy to agree with statements like, “The world is heading for disaster: Within the next 10 to 20 years, there will be a major upheaval.” No surprise, then, that the most healthy by contrast are 2.8x more likely to understand that targeted advertising benefits them, or 2.3x more likely to place trust in institutions like healthcare companies.

The conclusion is straightforward: People with more health resources can muster a view of the world in which they will see benefits, even if they can see challenges, as well.

Thankfully, the less healthy aren’t taking themselves out of the picture just yet. When it comes to expressing interest in or using voice-based assistants such as Alexa and Siri, the less healthy show equal enthusiasm. However, their health challenges correlate with other characteristics that inhibit their enthusiasm — a diminished sense of self-efficacy, for example, which we have long known predicts customer empowerment. The outcome we want to help them avoid is one in which they adopt the same intelligent technology but use it less effectively, limited by their own expectations for the future.

You care because you want to be one of those people who is fit for the machine future. But you also want the same for your colleagues and employees, because only by working together will you be able to remake your team and company into a smarter, more machine-enhanced version of itself. And you want the same for your customers, because the customers equipped with the most physical, emotional, and psychological resources will be those most able to join your remade company in a more elevated, more enabled, more human outcome.

The technology, the intelligence, is ours to seize. As the intelligence rises, so will our ability to do the very human thing that lies at the root of our motivation: to meet customer needs, to help our fellow human beings, and to feel more human ourselves in the process. We’re getting our feet wet in this tide with increasingly sophisticated data analytics, including those predictive analytics that will help us anticipate our customers’ needs. And by focusing on customer experience today, armed with that rich data, we’re orienting ourselves to the purpose of all this: to obsess about giving customers more value, more often.

But this outcome is not guaranteed. If we build intelligent technology that is not pointed toward the customer, and if we don’t learn to empathize with and serve the customer’s interests and concerns, when the tide of machine intelligence rises, we won’t be able to rise with it. Instead, we’ll be weighed down by our focus on yesterday’s processes, products, and protocols. We won’t have the physical, emotional, and psychological resources necessary to let go of those things and trust that a more human outcome lies ahead.

Be well, and you will be more likely to do well in the machine future. Be more human, and you will be more likely to help construct a machine-human partnership that makes us all even more human.

(This post originally appeared on the Forrester Research blog, which can be viewed here).

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