Human Capabilities Needed for an Age of Artificial Intelligence

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Lately, I’ve focused my reading on the future of work and what it means for remaining professionally relevant. So far the books include Industries of the Future (2016) by Alec Ross; Only Humans Need Apply: Winners & Losers in the Age of Smart Machines (2016) by Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby; and Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015) by Martin Ford.

Part of this was spurred by the realization that my own profession, change management, is showing early signs of commodification. The climactic a-ha moment came when I grabbed a tchotchke at the ACMP conference in Dallas. It was a deck of flashcards summarizing key terms, processes, and methods for organizational change management. My job had been reduced to a MemoryPak(TM) deck of cards! How comedically ironic. I was blind to my own looming commoditization after 15 years consulting others dealing with the same fate. (In response, I wrote a blog article differentiating skills and situations demanding more advanced capabilities: “Change Management Omakase Style.”

Like it or not, advanced robots and artificial intelligence (AI) are coming. Last Sunday, the New York Times featured an article indicating it may come even faster than previously anticipated. The author, John Markoff, wrote that in 2015, Silicon Valley venture capitalists pumped four times more money into AI startups compared to 2011 with one firm estimating investments will amount to $1.2Ba 76% increase from last year.

There is a range of perspectives when it comes to AI: from dire warnings about dystopian futures to optimistic hopes of more utopian-like scenarios. Davenport and Kirby cite quotable quotes from the likes of Elon Musk (AI represents our “greatest existential threat”); Stephen J. Hawking (“the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”); and Bill Gates (“I don’t understand why some people are not concerned”).

Conversely, other AI experts, as well as economists, argue humans have always overcome technological advances that resulted in job loss and that this is yet another phase. In the short-term, there will be winners and losers, but in the long run, society and workers’ capabilities will adapt to the new demands. Still others see the shrinking middle class and widening gap between rich and poor foreshadowing a world with very few “good jobs.”

In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford points out that automation no longer only applies to workers with little education and lower skills whose jobs tend to be "routine and repetitive." It also applies to college educated, white-collar workers whose jobs, or elements within their jobs, are predictable.  He writes... 

Could another person learn to do your job by studying a detailed record of everything you’ve done in the past? ... If so, then there’s a good chance that an algorithm may someday be able to do much, or all of your job. That’s made especially likely as the ‘big data’ phenomenon continues to unfold...
— Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots

In Only Humans Need Apply, the authors stress the importance of intentionally designing technology that augments humans’ capabilities rather than replacing them. But they also point out that few standards and ethics are currently established for this. It’s a veritable free-for-all that spreads far beyond the sprawling, sun-drenched terrain of Silicon Valley—and for that matter, the US too, as Alec Ross keenly describes in Industries of the Future.  

Given what we know is coming, how can we as humans get in front of it? How do we ensure we have advanced skills that cannot be commoditized, robotized, or programmed into artificial intelligence? What skills must we have to thrive in a world where machines and technology can do more and more work that was traditionally considered to be white-collar knowledge work?

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) are oft touted and emphasized in educational curricula. But based on the books and articles I’ve been reading so far, as well as my on-the-job work experience and Master’s degree coursework, STEM alone would leave a huge gap in what human workers need in an age of robots and artificial intelligence. It is why more and more world-class corporations are emphasizing soft skills in their professional development programs. Educational systems and parents will need to do the same. These remain uniquely “human” and will remain so for the foreseeable future.


Taking time to hear in full and understand various perspectives with objectivity. Engaging others for diverse opinions and expertise to solve complex problems. Setting oneself up to empathize.


Feeling what another person is experiencing. Employees who seek to understand and empathize with their coworkers' and customers' experiences, no matter how different from their own, will be more successful.


Generating unique ideas, applying divergent thinking, combining elements in a unique way, coming up with innovative solutions to problems.


I love how the Art Center College of Design describes it on their web page: applying a process to create something that “makes a positive impact in one’s chosen field—as well as the world at large.”

Complex thinking

Understanding and appreciating multi-dimensional perspectives. Recognizing and deconstructing “gray” areas.

Big picture thinking

Seeing larger patterns and relationships between seemingly unrelated things. Thinking strategically.

Ongoing learning

Learning how to learn because technology becomes outdated so rapidly.

Teamwork and collaboration

Working effectively with others to problem-solve, create, and innovate—because in a complex world, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.


I credit my husband for this one. Being mobile; in other words, willing to relocate, travel, and experience different people and cultures will help people thrive in a world that is increasingly diverse and globally interconnected. Doing so helps one learn to be adaptable, flexible, and agile.


We'll need to review the analysis provided to us by AI and draw a sensible conclusion for what is likely an ambiguous and complex situation. 

Leveraging technology to do bigger, better things

I liked this from Davenport and Kirby. For example, not making students do long-division for a chemistry problem; instead, have them use a calculator and spend precious time and energy focusing on the larger problem.

None of these are easy; hence, the saying that "soft skills are really hard." But they can be learned and developed with persistent work, education, feedback, coaching, and by practicing mindfulness and self-awareness. 

What started as IT, accounting, and HR benefits outsourcing will spread to more esteemed professions including management consulting, systems consulting, project management, law—even teaching, home healthcare, and radiology. And unlike the recent trend of outsourcing, humans may not be needed to do the work. 

What other skills and capabilities do you think will be essential in an increasingly high-tech world? Which of these do you struggle with the most? What patterns do you see in your own profession that could be put on a flashcard and programmed into an algorithm?