Self-driving cars. Robot advisers. Surgery-performing robots.
The wildest imaginations of our grandparents are gradually becoming a reality. As AI becomes more prevalent in the news, we see its endless possibilities for it to improve the quality of our lives. However, hidden beneath these opportunities lies a frightening version of the future. Researchers at the Oxford University predict that 47% of jobs will disappear in the next 25 years ranging from truck drivers and telemarketers to accountants and investment bankers. Consequently, we all have asked ourselves: Do we as humans have a place in the age of AI?
We measure ourselves on productivity. There are countless books, gadgets, seminars, podcasts, and articles on how to become more productive in our lives. Productivity is one of the most prominent indicators of how valuable we are in an organization. But in the age of AI, defining our worth with productivity is a losing game. An average lung cancer diagnostician processes 4,000 scans per year, whereas IBM Watson can process 400,000 scans (equivalent to 100 years of work) in just five days. As AI advances, the productivity gap between the humans and AI will only increase.
However, that doesn’t mean that it’s all over for humanity. We have traits that make us unique, and one of them is empathy. Embedded in this quote by Daniel Pink, is the essence of humans’ competitive advantage. “Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place”. It was Walt Disney’s ability to tap into the fantasies of his younger self that invented Disney World, it was Steve Job’s ability to inspire thousands of people at Apple that revolutionized the way we interact with technology, and it was Edison’s relentless drive to improve himself that illuminated the whole world. The future of our world is not determined by the number of stocks sold, surgeries performed, and cars driven, but by the human beings who invent, inspire, and improve through empathy.
Humans relive the experiences and emotions of others through empathy, which allow us to pinpoint the underlying needs when developing a product or a service. For example, when we are designing meditation rooms, we instinctively know from personal experience that candlelight calms our minds. This process of recognizing underlying needs from our own experiences is a highly personalized, complex, and emotionally driven process that cannot be simplified down to a form of data. AI may recognize the positive correlation between candlelight and relaxation, but it lacks the capability of being pioneers of these experiences.
Another aspect of the human condition is self-awareness. This manifests itself in a state of individual empathy, where we can understand the motivations of our future self and judge whether we are working to our full potential or whether what we are doing is worthwhile. This knowledge is what gives us the drive to improve and the foresight to assess the gap between where we currently are and where we want to be in the future.
Aristotle puts it perfectly: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” As individuals, we struggle even to lift a rock, but together we could build an empire, connect the world with the internet, and send people to the moon. Through empathy, we can ignite passion in others and inspire them to bond together on a journey toward a common vision. This act of inspiring someone is an elusive concept that requires a perfect mix of emotions, tonality, conviction, volume, and time. Put simply, it cannot be programmed. The tiniest idea can be multiplied by thousands of people to become a force that changes the trajectory of our future, and this ability to inspire is a quality that remains exclusive to humans.
So in a world dominated by productivity how do we practice empathy? A number of frameworks already exist to tackle this challenge, but the most prominent one is design thinking. Design thinking is taking a human-centric approach to solving wicked problems. Instead of generalizing human beings as a market or demographic, it explores the needs of Mark who is 37, a single father with a young daughter named Sarah, who likes black coffee and is struggling to learn how to braid Sarah’s hair. To stay relevant in the age of AI we need focus on the trait that sets us apart from the machines. Empathy will allow us to invent, inspire, and improve. Empathy will save us.