The competitive edge in the 21st century

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It’s commonly assumed that hard skills are the key to success but as we enter the robotic age, but designer Suzanne Boccalatte believes it is our soft skills that are more crucial than ever before.

One of my favourite futurist films of late was Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’. Where a lonely grieving man falls in love with Samantha his computer’s operating system, a ‘hyper-sophisticated artificial intelligence with a female voice’ designed to meet his every need. Like Siri on steroids, Samantha is empowered to sort him out and gives him advice on love and life. She has empathy and a deep understanding of the human condition. What’s this? A.I. with emotional intelligence? Surely not? But like all good sci-fi, this future is nearer than we think.

We are in the midst of technology revolution where the workplace culture, skills and practices are changing in ways we have not seen since the early 19th century. A.I. is increasingly used to enrich our sense of self, while the world of technology and data is becoming more like us... and we ain’t seen nothing yet. According to McKinsey, the biggest breakthrough will be when machines develop natural ‘language nuance on par with the human experience’ and when machines gain the ability to recognise ideas in everyday communication between people. If you think computers in the future will only take over ‘manual work’, think again.

A recent study conducted by the Oxford University, examined the role of A.I. in the health, science and retail sectors, predicts that A.I. will outperform humans in the next 40 years. A.I. will take over domains like language translation by 2024, truck driving by 2027, retail by 2031, even creative pursuits like writing a bestseller by 2049, and the highly skilled surgery by 2053. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2020, as many as 7.1m jobs could be lost to automation. In Australia, there are reports that up to half a million of jobs could be taken over by artificial intelligence in the not so distant future. Anyone born today will face a completely new world by the time they are twenty—people will be requiring skills and education 85% of jobs that don’t even exist yet. So where does that leave us?

A.I. is already widespread. Consider the iPhone in your pocket, which has basic algorithms like voice and face recognition and search engines such as Google. Then there’s IBM’s Watson, which is now being used in business, healthcare and it’s rumoured that it will soon be used by the Australian Taxation Department for taxation fraud. In less than three years we will be having more conversations with bots than our loved ones.

We seem to have no issues in forming emotional and intimate relationships with A.I. Even in our quickly changing landscape—in which bots act as lawyerstherapists, and help us to buy stuff we don’t even know we want—creating truly original content and expressing emotion still distinguishes us from machines...but for how long?

I’ve seen my career as a designer evolve with machines over those 25 years—the move from ‘making’ things by hand to rendering and publishing things online has democratised design. Anyone can be a designer now, the machines have simplified the work—allowing me to spend more time being thoughtful and doing what we do best, being creative. So I had imagined that the creative world would be immune to A.I. After all, surely machines aren’t capable of doing that messy unpredictable human thing called creativity? Right?

Recently A.I. has been recruited to craft beer, curate a photography journal, and make toys to comfort the elderly, and interestingly, last year, film studio 20th Century Fox used Watson to create a movie trailer for the sci fi robot film Morgan. Watson studied hundreds of horror trailers to understand what made them successful and then scanned the film to determine emotional sentiment—action and suspense—selected the moments it believed would make the most marketable trailer. But the finished trailer still needed human intervention to edit and pull it all together. The good news is until we are able to teach machines to think like our unpredictable, sometimes messy, but independent human brains, A.I. won’t quite be able to rival our human creativity, empathy, emotion. Well, not yet anyway.

It’s understandable that there is increasing anxiety about the A.I. future. It is also coming at a time when we are seeing a breakdown in the education system as institutions are losing their authority with increased performance pressure on them. We are questioning their value on a cost-benefit ratio when we need skills to keep up with a future that is not even here yet. What skills and education do we need in a world filled with bots and machines more powerful, intelligent and potentially more intuitive than we are? Will there be more new ‘human’ jobs created than lost?

It’s been speculated that future-proof jobs are those with tasks require unstructured, dynamic, in situ social interactions with a combination of creative, cognitive and motor abilities. Humans respond to those who seemingly can understand or sense who were are, as emotional intelligence (E.Q.) is the basis of being human and for organisations it’s vital to good customer service. We can sniff out insincerity in an instant and in this age of radical transparency, we aren’t likely to trust or buy from such a brand ever again.

Many studies demonstrated the strength of E.Q. for success—for leadership, entrepreneurship, and employability. Importantly E.Q. has been highlighted beyond the workplace and is associated with relationship, mental and physical health, and happiness.

But ironically as our addictive relationship with technology grows—we stand to lose those basic E.Q., I.Q., social skills and intelligence. In a recent study by mental health service, 70% of 18 and 29 year olds experience social anxiety, with 45% saying their smartphone is affecting their relationships and social skills. Dating apps are a good example, although they gives us greater opportunities to meet more partners than ever before, it’s also affecting our relationship skills. ‘The amount of time that young people spend alone and ‘relating to tech tools’ is reducing their exposure to face-to-face interactions and could lower their emotional intelligence,’ suggests psychologist Daniel Goleman. ‘We are supposed to learn self-regulation, empathy, cooperation, and conflict-resolution lessons in our daily life.’

Paradoxically, the more we embrace technology the more we lose E.Q. and all the while our machines are becoming more human. No wonder we’re confused. Can we embrace technology without losing our own humanity in the process? There is always an upside, A.I. could actually open up new streams of creativity and talents. In near the future, spending more time delegating to robots, means spending less time being distracted by our daily business chores, which frees us to focus on interpersonal communications and finally allowing us deeper thinking and more time for creativity and pleasure. To be future-ready, we need to possess more than cognitive intelligence, we need emotional and social talents in the brave new world of artificial intelligence. Humans thrive in the physical and social worlds of face to face interaction, which means there will always be a requirement for people to design and manage our real world systems... skills that are beyond artificial intelligence.


This content was created by Guardian Labs as part of a partnership with HSBC, and published on 16th October 2017.