My esteemed colleague Garreth has a fixation with AI and our march towards The Singularity. Naturally then, it is a regular topic of conversation in our office.As a Sci-Fi nerd, I marvel that such advances are now plausible in my own lifetime. Yet, also as a Sci-Fi nerd, I wonder what it could all mean for us humans. Following one of these office conversations, I read Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari. A fascinating and often confronting book, it follows the rise of humankind. From our hunter-gatherer beginnings through Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions, Harari brings context to where we stand as a species today. Behind the rise of the Sapiens, Harari argues is our collective ability to believe in the abstract. Law, the State, the Free Market: myths, belief in which have enabled us to cooperate to a degree far exceeding our primate cousins.
But how well have we adapted to our expanding world? Combining in increasing numbers, Family giving way to Community, to Religion, to the State, what trade-offs have we unwittingly made? Harari proposes that divergence from our natural inclinations might have cost more than we know in terms of health and wellbeing.
I read the book at the start of the year, on having just returned from a 5-week family holiday in Thailand. My first proper break in over 2 years, I had fully embraced the opportunity for proper reflection time. It struck me then as I read the book, that many of own holiday musings were explored.We had spent much of the holiday visiting my wife’s parents, in a village on the Cambodian border. It is, with almost no overstatement, a different world. I love village life. Time moves differently, the days are hot and filled with beer and spicy food. My Thai language skills being non-existent, interactions rely more on the nonverbal—and goodwill of the listener—than they do elsewhere. Left to my own devices, I make my own entertainment. Simple pleasures; cycling, long and dusty walks and a particular highlight; getting to know a passing elephant. You don’t realise how attuned/ immune you become to our constant barrage of electronic stimuli until you leave it behind. I found that it took me a few days to slow my restless mind to something more like its natural pace. Watching the ebb and flow of the village, I often experienced a sense of combined envy and nostalgia. A feeling that I was witnessing an otherwise lost (or endangered) way of life. Of course there were signs of the inexorable rise of technology, led by the mighty smartphone (or Selfie Expert as one model was advertised…don’t get me started). Yet it seemed that with less influence from social media, people were more inclined to actually be social. Most communication that I saw was face-to-face. Neighbours left for work together, returning at the end of the day to share a beer in the open air, outside their homes. Everyone referred to each other as “brother” or “sister”, as “cousins”. The crucial importance of family and the community was palpable.
Of course it’s easy to take a romanticised view of a place you visit infrequently and on holiday. Yet to me it felt that human connection remained a cornerstone of how the world worked. People seemed to be playing a more immediate and vital role in each other’s lives.
I experienced this again throughout the trip. Notably, one day on Koh Samui, when I decided to hire a car for a day. Having witnessed the barely contained chaos on the roads, I elected a major provider and all of the insurance.A couple of phone calls later, I faced a trip to the airport to pick up the car. After the bargaining for a taxi, the extravagant heat and absolute faff of airport security clearance, I arrived exhausted, the day well under way. During the form-filling, passport-photocopying and terms-and-conditioning, I was thrilled to realise I had left my credit card in my room’s safe. Deflated and sheepish, I prepared to give up my plans for the day and slink back to the hotel. I was amazed then when the clerk expressed sympathy, offering the car with no deposit or payment, on agreement to settle the next day. I was under no illusion as to the risk she was taking, in a job market where power is firmly on the side of the employer. Only a couple of days earlier a 7-11 cashier was almost tearful with gratitude when I pointed out that she had undercharged me.
And we all have those little magic moments of unexpected great service from time to time. They propel us to tell our friends and family (or even write the occasional blog). Hell, this phenomenon gave birth to the Net Promoter Score movement and the rise of the Customer Experience industry more broadly.However, that this type of experience still comes as a shock and surprise feels somewhat telling. This expression of empathy and human connection was a million miles away from the process-driven, computer says no interactions I more routinely experience.
Since the Industrial Revolution, man and machine have worked in symbiotic partnership. And in many cases, humans have been conditioned to work in the manner of machines. From production lines to contact centres, adherence, productivity, procedure have been highly-prized traits. So what of a future where machines— naturally better at working like machines than we—are given more to do?As long as such qualities as Emotional Intelligence, empathy and creativity remain our domain, surely we can retain hope. In contact centres, where increasing volumes of enquiries are automated, those which remain are tricky, requiring delicate human handling. This amounts to more than just adherence to processes or the ability to complete calls in under 360 seconds. Surely this must have implications for near-future recruitment strategies. Human Resources—a product of a bygone age of human-operated mass production—might need to adapt, focusing more on the “human” angle. Leadership must continue to transcend command and control and play a more fluid role in fostering connection and collaboration. If we are, as Harari suggests, The Last Sapiens (our technology-enhanced descendants godlike by comparison), we have a duty to our species. To be conscious of the trade-offs we continue to make in the name of progress. To account for the costs, both expected and unexpected. After all, we likely remain the only species which has consciously accelerated—and retains, for now, an ability to shape—its own evolution.