Helping Machines Help Us

Our Role in The Second Machine Age

Self-driving cars and trucks, stock prediction algorithms, emotionally responsive robots. There’s something both exciting and terrifying about these new machines; artificial intelligence that with one synthetic hand offers to improve our lives, and with the other threatens to make us obsolete.

But we need not panic! Or not yet at least. We are at an inflection point in progress that is remarkable, but it also needs the support of some good old-fashioned human ingenuity to be meaningful. Exponential improvement in technology does not automatically lead us to glory. Dollars invested in hardware need to be matched with investment in software, training, and process redesign; computation needs creativity. In 2014’s The Second Machine Age[i] the authors explain what made the Industrial Revolution work wasn’t just the engineering, it was policies and adaptation, communities and leadership. It needed humanity. Today, smartphones are ubiquitous, but not simply because the transistor chip is powerful and cheap. It’s the design, the brand value, the usability; our communities and our culture adapting to support the machine.

But should we help the machines this time around? Of course we should. There’s no question whether a machine brain can help us become safe, healthy, and smart. Millions of years of human evolution was spent mostly on things like recognizing a friend’s face, distinguishing sounds, and honing our instincts, but relatively little time on “higher thought”. Consider a simple Excel worksheet that ranks 1,000 digits in an instant whereas we can’t store more than seven digits in our working memory. Computers are good at what we’re not, but they still need our help. It’s harder for a computer to match our irrational, creative, emotional, quirky selves.

Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker claims that, “it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come.”[ii] At Fresh Squeezed Ideas, this is the part where we breathe a little easier. These increasingly impressive machines are more likely to complement our work than substitute for it. Computers struggle with new ideas—ideation and innovation—or “good ideas” more precisely. Thankfully, that’s where we shine.

Every generation perceives limits to growth and underestimates the potential to find new ideas, and yet every generation has the potential to burst through whatever bubble it’s in by rearranging resources in new ways. For that task, I’d take a team of my colleagues over IBM’s Watson supercomputer any day; marketing and brand planners, cultural and medical anthropologists, behavioral scientists and innovation gurus.

To embrace the good of this machine age, humans are challenged to improve in areas that machines may struggle; ideation, large-frame pattern recognition, and complex communication.[iii] That sounds a lot like a Fresh Squeezed Ideas collaboration session to me. So bring it on. I, for one, welcome our new machine overlords. We’ll be here with our white board and Sharpies when they need us.

[i] Brynjolfsson and McAfee, The Second Machine Age, 2014

[ii] Pinker, The Language Instinct,  1994

[iii] Brynjolfsson and McAfee, The Second Machine Age, 2014

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