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Graves: Artificial intelligence vs. the people person

An opinion column from Mitchell Superintendent Joe Graves

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I never cease to be amazed by the remarkable tendency of humanity to find ways to use scientific discoveries and technological miracles for bad ends. Build the internet and pornographic content explodes. Develop real-time navigation systems and somebody figures out how to use it to spy on others and invade their privacy. Accept the mantle of the Wright Brother by constructing drones and nations use them to make war, not on opposing armies but individual enemies. (Don’t believe me? Read Lt. Col. Wayne Phelps book, On Killing Remotely.)

Drones are remarkable things, nonetheless. The other day, a representative of the U.S. National Forest Service was reporting on their use for re-seeding incinerated forests in California, speeding the process at a vastly reduced cost. It occurred to me, though, that the same dark cloud/silver lining thinking applied. Imagine all the out-of-work foresters heading for the unemployment line in the shade of a flock of drones.

It occurred to me, as well, that this replacement of “repetitive task” workers with artificial intelligence (AI) technology was fully expected. The first wave of AI pushed millions of such laborers out of the labor force. That will continue, no doubt, but the second wave of AI’s impact on the economy is also well underway.

The presumption has been, from everything I have read up until now, that the second wave would continue that trend, replacing people in manufacturing, retail and other areas as AI began making and selling things using algorithms superior to those whose hardware was flesh and blood. Those with higher order thinking skills (HOTS) — analyzing, synthesizing, interpreting, evaluating — would be safe from the robots at the gate.

Not so, says Roland Rust, marketing professor at the University of Maryland, who recently analyzed (yes, the irony is thick) U.S. labor market data in a report he entitled The Feeling Economy. Thinking jobs are now also on the AI chopping block. As I read, visions of actuaries, stock market analysts, lawyers and (gulp) administrators up against a pock-marked wall before a line of carbine-wielding robots danced in my head. Just as technological innovation solves problems as it creates others, so does it take on a life of its own in ways no one can necessarily see in advance.


Given, then, that HOTS won’t protect you from the rise of the automatons in the workplace, what will?

If this question seems esoteric, it isn’t. Far from it. It is a question educators ask themselves every day (and educators at Mitchell Technical College, incidentally answer really well.) While education, especially K-12, is much more than preparation of children for their eventual entry into the workplace, the fact remains that it is a very important purpose of schools. Doing a poor job of getting young people ready for the workplace is a recipe for disaster and not just for the individual but for the family, community and nation in which they find themselves.

Rush answers the question in a way very few have done so in the past. The most important skill for economic success and contribution is feeling, not thinking. Stop the analysis and bring on the empathy. Enter emotional intelligence, working well with others, negotiation skills, and schmoozing. Enter the “people” person.

I see his point. I even agree with his point to an extent (though neglecting thinking skills will ultimately lead us far, far from reaching our full capacity as homo sapiens sapiens and being less than full human is an awfully high price to pay, even for full employment.) But I also expect the economy he describes to be a strategic retreat. It is Johnston backing away from Sherman as he howled through Georgia. Hitler making a doomed attempt at the Bulge, eking out a few more days but facing annihilation, nonetheless.

Can it really be humanity’s face to stake out a smaller and smaller portion of the economy as AI surmounts each wall, undermines each fortification with the newest ability, the succeeding algorithm?

Maybe so. And, if so, then it is time for one more question.

Just how does that make you feel?

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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