Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will by Geoff Colvin

The Blurb On The Back:

As technology races ahead, what will people do better than computers?

What hope will there be for us when computers can drive cars better than humans, do intricate legal work, identify faces, scurry helpfully around offices and factories, even perform some surgeries, all faster, more reliably, and less expensively than people.

It’s easy to imagine a frightening future in which computers simply take over most of the tasks that people now get paid to do.  While we’ll still need high-level decision makers and computer developers, those tasks won’t keep most working-age people employed or allow their living standard to rise.  The unavoidable question – will millions of people lost out, unable to beat the machine? – is increasingly dominating business, education, economics and policy.

The bestselling author of TALENT IS OVERRATED explains how the abilities that will prove most essential to our success are no longer the technical, classroom-taught left-brain skills that economic advanced have demanded from workers in the past.  Instead, our greatest advantage lies in what we humans are most powerfully driven to do for and with one another, arising fro our deepest, most essentially human abilities – empathy, creativity, social sensitivity, storytelling, humour, building relationships, and expressing ourselves with greater power than a machine mind can ever achieve.  This is how we create durable value that is not easily replicated by technology – because we’re hardwired to want it from humans.

These high-value skills create tremendous competitive advantage – more devoted customers, stronger cultures, breakthrough ideas, and more effective teams.  And while many of us regard these abilities as innate traits – “he’s a real people person,” “she’s naturally creative” – it turns out they can all be developed.  Leading business, medical clinics and even the US Army are now emphasising human interactions and empathy in their training programmes.

Meanwhile, studies have shown that our increasing reliance on technology for interaction and entertainment is not only making us less happy, trusting and likely to achieve good grades, it is also damaging our abilities to recognise emotion and harmonise with others – the very skills we will need to prosper.

As technology advances, we shouldn’t focus on beating computers at what they do – we’ve lost that contest.  Instead, we must develop our most essential human abilities and teach our children to value not just technology but also the richness of interpersonal experience.  They will be the most valuable people in our world because of it.  Colvin proves that to a far greater degree than most of us ever imagined, we already have what it takes to be great.

You can order HUMANS ARE UNDERRATED: WHAT HIGH ACHIEVERS KNOW THAT BRILLIANT MACHINES NEVER WILL by Geoff Colvin from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Geoff Colvin is a journalist and senior editor at large for FORTUNE magazine.  This is an interesting book about how softer people skills will be more important for the future jobs market than traditional problem solving and engineering. However, it’s troubling how the emphasis is put on individuals rather than corporations to develop these skills and the profit motive will incentivise companies to find ways to replace people to save cost.

Colvin starts the book by setting out the rapid development of computer technology and artificial intelligence.  He runs through the ways in which computers are surpassing humans, from IBM’s Deep Blue being the first machine to beat a human in chess when it defeated world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 to IBM’s Watson winning Jeopardy! In 2011 and now moving into cooking by looking at creating completely new recipes.  His point is that computer technology are learning new skills – including skills that were previously considered to be beyond them, such as analysing human expressions to assess if someone is lying to the development towards autonomous driving cars – at an increasingly fast rate.  

In contrast, humans improve their own skills in much smaller increments with the result that those humans performing jobs in sectors where computers are providing themselves to be more efficient and cheaper will increasingly find themselves at risk of losing out.   Colvin goes onto explore the impact of increasing computerisation on the jobs market and the stagnating wages situation.  His basic argument is that the current impact of computing and AI is just the latest chapter in a 200 year-old story that’s seen industrial technology change the nature of work and the value placed on particular skills with the result that for the first time it’s reaching into the professional classes of lawyers and doctors and also into the types of creative roles that have traditionally been seen as immune.  He believes that therefore it’s not sufficient to ask what computers can’t do, but instead to think about those activities that humans simply won’t be comfortable to have done by computers and will almost always want to have performed by other humans, e.g. for reasons of accountability or empathy or for activities in organisational life where people need to work together in order to work out what the exact problem is that needs solving before they can then move on to solving them.  

Colvin then moves on to where humans have skills that make them work more effectively than computers and also to the types of working where humans have better productivity and experiences.  For example, he looks at: 

– how speaking face-to-face encourages brain synchronisation, 

– the importance of empathy in fields such as medicine (and how empathy has been declining as a skill but can be ‘rebooted’), 

– the importance of practice and honest feedback and how this had demonstrable results for the US military (but also how computers can assist in this),

– the importance of building and managing effective teams and why real-world team working is more effective than working on-line in teams,

– the importance of narrative and stories in selling ideas and why story-telling needs to be done by humans,

– the importance of interaction in creativity and again, why physical interaction is better for sparking creative solutions than on-line interaction plus why trust is an important factor as well.

I was particularly interested in the chapter looking at why women have more advantages in these areas than men and may therefore be better placed for the future work situation than men are.  Particularly interesting was a section on how this is linked to natural levels of testosterone but also how the natural team working abilities can be disrupted by establishing competition for status.  Colvin then concludes by establishing how computers can complement and enhance human skill sets through training programmes that can encourage and train certain types of behaviour.

I picked up this book because having worked in the legal profession for 20 years, I’ve been hearing warnings about how AI and computing will make my job redundant since the mid-90s and was interested to see Colvin’s take on it.  He does, in fact, talk about this phenomena in one of his chapters, mentioning the AI software that carries out due diligence and discovery exercises to a high degree of accuracy.  However, I have to say that while I don’t doubt that such technology exists, is used and will be used more in future, I haven’t seen it being deployed widely across the profession – instead the focus on computing tends to be towards project management and transaction management software with paralegals being brought in to carry out “grunt” work discovery/due diligence.  Partly this is because law firms are predominantly human partnerships and humans are very protective about their fields of expertise and would rather bring on a cheaper source of labour to commoditise a transaction than replace workers with computing altogether.  Partly it’s also because law firms are wary of being beholden to software companies and ever-increasing licence fees and because of a lingering worry about liability and the impact on their PII cover should the software get it wrong.

This comes into where I think there’s a weakness in the book which is that companies will be motivated to use automation, computing and AI as new processes become available when it is cheap for them to do so.  It doesn’t matter if a company sees itself as being a “people” company, what ultimately matters for them is the bottom line.  Therefore while Colvin can talk about the unique skills of humans and how they can improve businesses, I have to say that I am very cynical as to whether a business will be interested in that unless it can see a profit from it.  Certainly while Colvin has examples of organisations like the US military that is increasingly teaching more “people” type skills, he also talks about how there’s a focus on people being able to bring these skills to companies themselves and I thought it was very telling that a supposed people company like Southwestern Airways is used in a story about an IT guy who was cut loose because he didn’t want to talk to people – no apparent attempt at addressing it with him or trying to train him to be different.  Likewise, while I don’t doubt that women have a skillset that makes them better at the team building and team working parts of future working, unless something happens within companies – particularly ‘tech’ companies with their well documented ‘bro’ culture preference – it won’t see more women in the workplace or more women moving up higher in the workplace.

This is a well-researched book with comprehensive end notes showing Colvin’s work and it was interesting to see the psychology and biology on display here and how important US military research has been in looking at improving ways of humans working with each other.  I also think that Colvin makes some interesting points at how technologies can assist in working practices and make jobs easier, allowing people to focus on more high level, higher value and more interesting work.  However, this book was first published in 2015 and Colvin makes interesting points about the difficulties and deficiencies in establishing team working on-line.  Given the events of 2020, I would be really interested in seeing him revisit this to see if it’s made any difference to those findings and how people work together.

All in all though, it’s an interesting read for anyone who’s concerned about the impact of technology on the jobs market and how they can try to future-proof their CV.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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