One Class of Jobs That Even the Most Sophisticated AI Can't Replace

AI might be coming for many of the jobs in the future. But not this kind, and not ever. Here's why.

Andrew McAfee: My coauthor Erik Brynjolfsson and I are both at MIT, and we have a colleague at MIT who said something that really helps me understand some of the last human work that I think is ever going to be automated by even really sophisticated technology.
Our colleagues name is Deb Roy. He's at the media lab. And he points out that we humans are incredibly deeply social creatures, we're just a social species. And you say okay so what? So are ants, so are honeybees, so are chimpanzees.

Deb's point is that the nature of human social interaction involves some really deeply rooted social drives that don't appear to be present in any other animal. We came across a great quote when we were writing Machine Platform Crowd from a sociologist or a primatologist who said, “Look, you will never, ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log." That notion of cooperation is absent from even our closest nonhuman relatives.

So that gives me a whole new way to think about the kind of work that's most innately deeply human, it's the work that taps into our social drives. And those drives are both positive—there’s solidarity and pride and compassion for other human beings—and they're negative—they can be envy, they can be shame, they can be jealousy, they can be antipathy towards some kind of other group out there—but we have these drives they are very, very deep, they're very strong and they're kind of hard to fool with technology.

So there are a lot of jobs out there that tap into, that makes use of, that try to harness those social drives. And one of my favorite examples of a job that we don't think of as this incredibly elite job or this incredibly prestigious job but a job that is very unlikely, I believe, to be replaced by technology anytime soon is just a girl's soccer coach.

And that girl's soccer coach may or may not be a strategic genius about the game of soccer, but what that person can do, if they're any good at their job, they can motivate a group of girls to come together to overcome rivalries and jealousies and different kinds of pettiness and play together as a team. They can teach the value of some of those social drives like solidarity. They can help some girls who are natural leaders but might be going through a difficult period in their lives get past that and assume the roles that they're going to be good at. They can just deal in this incredibly rich mix of social things that are going on.

Let's say we could build a computer that could figure out all the different social things that are happening among a group of twenty-five 12-year-old girls. I think that computer is actually a long way off, but let's say we can even build that computer. Would that computer, would that robot be able to motivate those girls, draw them together, tease out what each is really good at, get them to overcome fatigue and self-doubt and all these things, realize if they were having problems in the rest of their lives and how to help them through that? Again, one thing I've learned with technology is “Never say never.” That automatic soccer coach feels like it's a long, long, long way away from me.

So if I take that example and I project it out there are a lot of people who do some work that feels a lot like that and those are teachers, those are managers, those are folk who might be taking care of our more vulnerable populations and I think about the very young, the sick, the elderly, the infirm.

There are a lot of those vulnerable people out there, and because of the richness of our social lives and our social drives I just don't see anyone, even really great innovators, coming up with technologies that could just substitute for the people who are currently doing those very, very social jobs.

Artificial intelligence is coming. And it's coming for our jobs (really). Truck drivers. Construction workers. Doctors. Even 39% of the legal aid workforce is set to be AI by 2020, according to Forbes. But there's a certain sector... and more importantly a certain skill... that robots and AI can never learn: how to inspire. Andrew McAfee uses the example of a girl's soccer team, positing that it will take robots a truly staggering amount of computing power for AI to even understand what rivalry is, let alone the intricacies of interpersonal communication required to lead a team to do their best work. It's a great watch, so click play and sit back.


Andrew McAfee's latest book is Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.