Rethinking Balance

Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson discuss the implications of three technological developments in business

Published 5 years ago on Jul 22, 2018 3 minutes Read

The human condition is inherently interpersonal. We are deeply social beings who have been living in ever-larger groups—families, bands, tribes, cities—throughout modern evolutionary history. An inevitable consequence of this trend is that we are acutely attuned to each other, both as individuals and as group members. Virtually all of us care constantly and deeply about how we are relating to others, and about what others think of us (true sociopaths and people with extreme cases of autism spectrum disorder are among the few exceptions). Our MIT colleague and prodigiously talented researcher Deb Roy has pointed out that this social nature gives us a powerful way to predict what jobs and tasks will remain least affected by technological progress: very simply, they’re the ones that tap into our social drives.

Roy’s list of these drives includes compassion, pride, embarrassment, envy, justice, and solidarity. To see how they apply in the world of work, take the example of a high school girls’ soccer coach. It would be great if she had a deep strategic understanding of the sport and an ability to observe the flow of a game and shift tactics appropriately, but since there aren’t large financial consequences associated with wins versus losses, the ability to deliver wins isn’t what’s most important for this job. Instead, what matters is the ability to get the girls to work well together in pursuit of a goal, to teach them to be good and supportive teammates for each other, and to develop their characters through athletics. The coach accomplishes this in large part by tapping into her own compassion and the girls’ pride. She also makes use of the girls’ desire for approval from her, a role model and authority figure.

Most of us appreciate that good soccer coaches are rare, but we forget that nonhuman ones don’t exist. Try to imagine an all-digital, artificially intelligent girls’ soccer coach. Could it pick out the natural leaders and difficult personalities on the team and know what to do if some girls were both? Would it be able to bond the team together over the course of a season, navigating the highs and lows? Would it be able to motivate a girl to push past fatigue and self-doubt, and accomplish things she didn’t think possible? We’ve learned never to say never with technology, but here we’ll say “almost certainly not".

Computers are getting good at tasks like determining people’s emotional states by observing their facial expressions and vocal patterns, but this is a long, long way from doing the things we just listed. We’re confident that the ability to work effectively with people’s emotional states and social drives will remain a deeply human skill for some time to come. This implies a novel way to combine minds and machines as we move deeper into the second machine age: let the computers take the lead on making decisions (or judgments, predictions, diagnoses, and so on), then let people take the lead if others need to be convinced or persuaded to go along with these decisions.

This is an extract from Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson's Machine, Platform, Crowd published by WW Norton & Company