How to Be Human 101 or: Going Where Machines Can’t

As we face down a future teeming with robots and artificial intelligence, there’s no shortage of experts of every ideological stripe, myself included, calling for schools to produce more graduates proficient in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) to take advantage of our increasingly technology-fueled economy.

On the surface, the argument seems bulletproof. Computing jobs are the source of new wage growth in the U.S. in every industry and every stateat twice the rate of all other jobs. And the economic value of a computer science education is 40% greater: 1.67M in lifetime earnings vs 1.19M for other college graduates.

Our schools and businesses are not doing enough to give students and employees a proper grounding in foundational technology skills. But there is another piece missing: I call it “How to Be a Human 101.”

If we look closely at the factors that enable employees to succeed and thrive in their careers, we see a strong demand for human skills that today we either ignore or take for granted. Recently, Hanover Research, an educational consulting firm, looked at high-growth occupations from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and then determined the core skills required in each of them based on a database that it developed. The top three skills were: active listening, speaking, and critical thinking.

As companies rush to adopt artificial intelligence and other forms of automation, the most successful employees will be those who, in addition to being technology literate, can also make the most of their core human skills.

You can see it in the numbers. According to David J. Deming of the Harvard Kennedy School, demand for jobs that require social skills has risen nearly 12 percentage points since 1980, while less-social jobs have declined by a little over 3 percentage points.

Today, we dismiss skills such as empathy, emotional intelligence, creativity, collaboration, speaking, and active listening as “soft.” We need to shift our thinking, or we will be setting ourselves up for failure in the future of work. As technology becomes more prevalent in our lives, these fundamental human skills will become increasingly difficult to acquire and maintain—soft skills are actually hard skills.

Automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning are already outrunning their human counterparts in a pure technology race. Google’s machine learning system recently created its own coding that was more efficient than the human-written code used to create the system in the first place.

Instead, we need to use our human skills in combination with technology to go where the machines can’t. We need to be able to think critically and articulate those thoughts well—especially verbally. Machines can’t assemble multiple threads of evidence, synthesize a point of view based on that evidence, engage with others in a discussion based on that point of view, and (especially) creatively come up with an entirely new point of view based on a give-and-take discussion.

Fortunately, our education and corporate training systems do occasionally require participants to engage in critical thinking and learn how to speak well in front of others rather than passively absorbing lectures, but we need to double down on this emphasis.

Educators and trainers should rethink the ways that they construct their curriculum and conduct their classes. Instead of thinking of education and training simply as portfolios of subject knowledge, we should instead be focusing on imparting the full range of uniquely human qualities and talents to all our students and employees for them to have the greatest chances of success. The World Economic Forum  groups these skills into three main categories:

  • Foundational literacies. These are the core skills that everyone needs to have in the age of robots and AI, including literacy not just in reading but also in math, science, computing, finance, and civics and culture.
  • Competencies. To outperform computers, we need to be able to conquer complex challenges using uniquely human competencies such as active listening, critical thinking and problem solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration.
  • Character qualities. We must give students and employees the ability to handle new and ever-changing roles by teaching them curiosity, initiative, persistence, grit, adaptability, leadership, and social and cultural awareness.

There is already great demand for this more human-based combination of skills. For example, companies report that they are having difficulty finding people equipped for the hot job of the Big Data moment: data scientist. That’s because these people need a combination of tech skills and human skills. Besides being a good programmer and statistician, they also need to be intuitive, inquisitive, and good communicators.

Eighty-seven percent of employees say that training and acquiring new skills will either be important or essential to keep up with changes in the workplace, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. But only 14% of workers surveyed by Spherion Staffing said their employers get an ‘A’ grade for learning and development programming, according to Chief Learning Officer magazine.

Technology now underpins everything in business, and technology is advancing at an exponential (think Moore’s Law), rather than linear pace. Having the ability to adapt to change will be as important as knowing how to code or lead a team.

As we live longer and spend more years in the workforce,  the best way to avoid being left behind is by treating the skills that make us uniquely human as a foundation for everything we do. We then need to adopt a mindset of continuous subject-matter learning over our lifetimes to stay current with technological changes. But it’s that human foundation that will give us the strength to make sense of, adapt to, and remain current with all the technological changes.

We must prepare for a future that will require us to be both more technology-savvy and more human than ever before.