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Connecting to purpose in a world of bots

By 25th October 2018 No Comments

Following her appearance as guest speaker at AB Thinks Live event on 12 June, organisation consultant Alexandra Stubbings explains why finding the human matters in the AI age.

What makes people and organisations relevant to the societies they operate in and resilient in the face of disruptive change? As an organisation consultant and coach I think about these questions a lot with my clients, like what will Artificial Intelligence do to their operating models and people.

But just lately I’ve turned the question on myself.  Should I be worried what Artificial Intelligence could do to my profession? In my efforts to find out I discovered Coachbot. Coachbot is an app that provides coaching questions to teams and analyses their responses, helping them reflect on their dynamics and address any tensions early on. I’d thought of coaching as one of the more human and non-replicable professions, but apparently not. Just as I spot patterns in team behaviour and encourage dialogue around them, so does the bot. But how worried should I be? On the one hand Coachbot could steal my lunch; on the other the app is democratising coaching, making it more widely available. Can’t complain about that. Who knows, it might even inspire new clients to beat a path to my door for more personalised development! Not a straightforward question to answer then.

Looking to other professions, it seems AI could disrupt work in quite surprising ways.  Plumbers, it turns out, don’t need to worry much, at least not any time soon. The complex reasoning and hand-eye coordination required to work under your sink will not be replicated for some years yet, (PWC would say at least 15 years). For radiologists, The Economist recently noted, much of their detailed and time-consuming analysis work will be automated, but that should result in more time for patients and lower costs, hence increasing access and improving health outcomes for more people. No complaints there either.

I take from this brief inquiry that whether you’re concerned for yourself personally, or thinking more broadly about your organisation and sector, disruption in our day-to-day work is inevitable and some part of it, whatever our profession, could be replaced by bots.

Perhaps then, keeping ourselves relevant and resilient means knowing what we do that is uniquely human – the things that are very hard to replicate (at least for the foreseeable future) and don’t involve large-scale pattern recognition and response. I identified three things that I think fit these criteria. No doubt there are more and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Mine are:

Firstly, intuition. Namely, that part of creativity that connects the unexpected and makes leaps across disciplines and domains, that attaches meaning to metaphor and those 3am mystical wake-up moments when suddenly everything seems to make sense! If bots excel in the macro (making sense of a mass of big data) then maybe the human excels in this micro world, making sense of the rare, the momentary, the local, in unexpected ways. Which concerns the next point…

Proximity and the importance of human interaction, particularly human touch. Research into human behaviour noted a significant increase in ‘compliance’ (agreeing to a request from a stranger, such as to complete a questionnaire in the street or charity donations rising from 55% to 81%) in response to a gentle touch on the arm. The importance of holding for babies’ development is now long established. In a world where increasing amounts of our time are spent working virtually (and often very productively), we still need interaction. We need the hugs that release endorphins. Skoll Foundation, which supports social entrepreneurship, this year themed their whole annual conference on the need for proximity in addressing global challenges. Simply put, we care more when we get proximate.

Thirdly, values and ethics. Which is not to say that machines aren’t already developing the capacity to make more and less ethical choices, but in a world of augmented reality they are interacting with and learning from humans all the time – that means all of us with digital lives, not only the programmers. Our ability to deeply interrogate our own motivations and values, to engage with others who might have fundamentally different ideologies, to find routes towards mutual understanding and co-operation, and even to design our career paths accordingly, these still feel like distinctive human capabilities. This is what I mean by ‘connecting to purpose’ – finding the positive difference that you can make and directing your energies towards it.

Connecting to purpose is how we remain relevant and resilient. It requires finding out what matters to us personally, finding the intersection between the social and environmental challenges you can see – of which there is no shortage and many will be in your backyard – and the value you can bring to them through your skills and expertise. You don’t need to wear a cape and tights (that’s optional, your call), it could simply mean questioning how you do what you do today and adjusting course to ensure the results of your efforts are net positive for the people and the world around you. My hunch is that it’s in asking ourselves these questions, and doing this work, that we’ll prove relevant and resilient for the long-term, and give ourselves less cause to be worried.

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