Human Worker and the Machine Intelligence

A new trend which is debated and discussed intensely and extensively in the media is the increasing influx of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots in to the workplace. Many tasks which require a certain amount of human intelligence and skill can now be done by these ‘intelligent’ machines. If this trend continues, along with rapid advancement in AI, what is the position of the human worker? Will she be progressively replaced by machine intelligence? How can we, humans working in offices and factories, cope with this new trend? These are the main questions explored in some detail in two brilliant articles in Harvard Business Review, with the cover page title ‘Meet Your New Employee: How to Manage the Man–Machine–Interaction’. This essay is a review of these articles in the light of a deeper perspective. The wider evolutionary perspective on the possibility of super-intelligent machines was discussed in some detail in an earlier article in this blog (‘The Next Step in Evolution: Superman or a Super Machine’). This article examines the man–machine interaction in the corporate context.

The New Machine Age

In a thoughtful interview in Harvard Business Review, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, faculty members at MIT Sloan School of Management, state what lies ahead: “Nothing is sacrosanct: Machine are beginning to make inroads in areas involving creativity, dexterity and emotional perceptiveness.” According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, this will be the new or second machine age. The first one is the Industrial Revolution when steam engines replaced muscle power. In the second machine age, AI and Robots are racing ahead to replace brainpower. Here are some interesting and also alarming perspectives from the researchers of MIT Sloan School of Management.

  • There are two or perhaps three stages in the second machine age. In the first stage, humans teach machines step by step, which is the essence of software programing. In the second stage, machines learn on their own, developing knowledge and skill ‘that we can’t even explain’. There may be a third stage when machines understand emotions and interpersonal reactions. In MIT Media Lab, there are researchers working on robots that can pick up on emotions, in some cases analysing facial expression better than you and I can.
  • On the positive side, machine age and the emerging digital technologies will be able to produce more or better education, healthcare, entertainment, goods and services for more and more people.
  • On the negative side, it will create a big skill divide. Those who have the necessary skills to fit it with the new machine age or which the machines cannot do, will prosper and others who do not have these skill or with skills which can be replaced by machines, will be left behind and find it very difficult to cope with the age.

In this scenario of the second machine age, what is left for humans? Obviously, highly skilled, specialized and innovative professional in AI and digital technology will be in great demand. Apart from this technical domain, Brynjolfsson and McAfee indicate three more areas where humans have a distinctive edge over AI—at least at present or in the near future. They are as follows:

  • High-end creativity such as great new business ideas, scientific breakthroughs, novels that grip you.
  • Qualities of the heart such as nurturing, motivating or leading.
  • Dexterity, mobility—its extraordinarily hard for robot to carry out movements such as walking across a crowded restaurant, take the dishes back to the kitchen, etc.

Man–Machine Integration

The next practical question is how we humans can cope with this future secretion. The traditional or general attitude of the corporate manager to machines tends towards replacing men or processes with machines. Here comes an interesting and a very different perspective from Brynjolfsson who says:

“The intellectually easy thing to do is to look at an existing process and says: how can I have a machine do part of the job? It does take a certain amount of creativity and a little bit of work to do that, and it does create value. However, it takes a lot more creativity to say: How can I have the machine and the human work together to do something never done before and create something that will be more valuable in the workplace.”

In other words, instead of asking how to replace humans with machines, how to have both in a mutually complementing manner so that together they can create something more than what they can produce individually. This is an important point which has to be explored extensively if we want to make the second machine age into a creative epoch for human education. In another article in Harvard Business Review, Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby discuss this perspective in some detail. Here are some interesting points highlighted by Davenport and Julia:

  • Unless we find as many tasks to give to humans as we find to take away from them all social and psychologically ills of joblessness will grow.
  • What if we were to reframe the situation? Rather than asking the traditional question what tasks currently performed by humans will soon be done by machines—we ask a new one: “What new feats humans may achieve if they have better thinking machines to assist them?”
  • What we need is an augmentation strategy, which means starting with what humans can do today and figuring out how it can be augmented by machines. In this approach, knowledge workers will come to see smart machines as partners and collaborators in creative problem solving.
  • The traditional approach which tries to replace humans with machines is based on the principle of cost-efficiency. But the future depends not on cost reduction or efficiency or even productivity but on creativity and innovation, which can come only from humans and not from machines.

How to implement this augmentation strategy? For the individual employee, Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby suggest the following steps.

  • Step up: Head for the higher intellectual ground such as ‘big picture’ thinking or higher levels of abstraction.
  • Step aside: Develop other kinds of intelligence such as ‘interpersonal’ awareness and empathy.
  • Step in: Learn how to correct, improve or modify the work of computers.
  • Step narrowly: Specialize in a domain which is either difficult or not economical to computerize.
  • Step forward: develop or acquire the knowledge and skill in the next generation of AI system.

The Deeper Perspective

The last three steps belong to the technical domain, which are undoubtedly helpful to cope with the new machine age. However, lasting remedy lies in developing facilities which cannot be substituted by the machine in the near future.

The first two domains highlighted by Brynjolfsson and McAfee and also the first two steps suggested by Davenport and Julia indicate the faculties to be focused not only to remain ahead but also to work in attunement with the machine. In a deeper and broader psychological perspectival, we have to develop the intuition or imagination in the following domains.

  • In the mental domain, holistic insight which can comprehend the whole and the parts in their interconnected totality and know the immediate and long-term consequences of our decisions for the part and the whole.
  • In the aesthetic domain, sensitivity to the beautiful and the harmonious in every activity of our work and life.
  • At the emotional level, purified emotions of the deeper heart which brings empathy, caring, kindness and harmonious and loving relationship with others.
  • At the ethical level, the ability to build human wellbeing at all levels—material, psychological, moral.
  • In the spiritual domain, a deep insight into the hidden and invisible patterns and forces of life, as it plunges further and deeper, a living perception of the underlying unity and independence of all life, diving still deeper, into the indivisible oneness of consciousness.

As we progress in these higher levels of awareness and understanding, we will know how to connect thing, ideas, people, processes and machine in an all-inclusive, mutually supportive and complementing harmony, which no AI, present or future can do.

At the collective dimension, awakening and development of these higher faculties beyond the logical and machine intelligence have to become part of education and training at the national as well organizational strategies. The students of AI in educational institutions have to be sensitized to the human dimensions of it in such a way they have the broadness of vision, insights and compassion to make the man–machine interaction a creative whole, working together in a complementing harmony.


Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, ‘The great decoupling’, Harvard Business Review, June 2015, p. 67–72.

Thomas H. Davenport and Julia Kirby, ‘Beyond automation’, Harvard Business Review, June 2015, p. 55–62.

M. S. Srinivasan


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