Tech is cool. Everyone in product can agree on that. We’re taking technology to new heights, always innovating and making life easier, healthier, cheaper, and more fun for millions of people. Dozens of online learning platforms and apps are making education more easily accessible, delivery services make everything from TVs to takeaways immediately available to us, and we are connected to our loved ones at all times. There are babies who were only born thanks to apps like Tinder. We can even build someone a new limb.
But that doesn’t mean we should look at technology with rose coloured glasses. While a vast majority of the hype over ‘the robots taking over’ can be passed off as paranoia, economists warn that the velocity of our technological advances isn’t without its downsides. With these downsides comes the need for human skills, which will become increasingly more valuable as technology moves forward. Before we start building the altars for our AI overlords, let’s look at the current reality of Man vs Machine.
A New Industrial Revolution
One of the major economic and social concerns of the past few decades has been that technology will eventually replace humans in the workplace. For some members of the public, this started with the introduction of self-service machines in the supermarket, replacing the work of sales assistants. This was arguably the first and most visual representation of machines replacing the average person in our day-to-day lives. And of course, panic ensued.
In the case of self-service checkouts, cashiers are still needed in almost every shop. The machines are there, mainly, to relieve the pressure on staff. One reason for installing them is to cut down queue times at the human-operated tills, and allow staff to get on with other things instead of being constantly tied to a till. In this way, technology is still assisting humans rather than replacing them. An optimist would say that these machines create roles for people to build and maintain them, and make the human staff’s jobs easier. Win win.
Many economists agree that the problem isn’t with a 21st Century industrial revolution itself, but with the speed of it. According to Satish Alapati, CIO of Media & Entertainment Customer Experience at AT&T, “Because of technological advances, technology’s role within the organization is itself shifting. The role of technology has evolved from automating the business to actually being the business.”* New technology breeds new opportunities, of course. But it still takes human skill, ingenuity, instinct, and creativity to use it.
What Can’t Machines Do?
The art of conversation
We’ve all had fun with chatbots, and by now most of us have seen the incredible work that has gone into Hanson Robotic’s Sophia. We can’t downplay the innovation and brilliance of the work that AI technicians have done in the last decade.
However, there are many jobs that still hinge on the art of conversation. Whether you’re in sales, marketing, product, HR, admin…most jobs rely on being able to interact normally with other human beings. Otherwise we wouldn’t bother having face-to-face interviews.
Despite the leaps and bounds made in AI in recent years, their conversational skills still leave much to be desired. With a few exceptions, most bots are recognisable after only a few interactions.
That’s not to say that chatbots aren’t incredibly helpful, and advances in AI could see some really great developments in their application. But users are always going to want that human touch at some point.
This is the first thing brought up in arguments against AI’s supremacy over humans. Machines may be more efficient and make fewer mathematical mistakes than us, but we still have the monopoly over the arts.
That’s not to say that art isn’t being made using AI, but it would be a stretch to claim that AI is able to come up with an idea and create something purely artistic of its own accord. Mario Klingemann, a German artist and Google Arts and Culture resident creates original pieces of art using code, algorithms, and neural networks. However, when the pieces go up for sale, he is credited as the artist, not the AI. As innovative as the technology is, it is the human wielding it who matters most.
There’s no doubt that people are doing some unbelieveably creative things with technology. Whether that’s creative problem solving as a Product Manager using machine learning, or creating actual art. But the imagination is all human, and the technology is just the brush and canvas.
Overall, we shouldn’t be expecting neural networks alone to come up with the next great contemporary model, or to 3D print anything on par with Michaelangelo’s David. (Well…maybe not yet anyway.)
Nuance and Cultural Sensitivity
When Microsoft revealed Tay, an AI Twitter bot designed to mimic the speech of a 19 year old American girl. 16 hours after going live Microsoft was forced to suspend Tay after trolls exploited the ‘mimicry’ nature of Tay’s AI, tweeting things that no sane human employee would ever dream of. Although this also reveals something ugly about how people interact with new technology (this is why we can’t have nice things!) it shows one of the flaws in AI in its current state. No human would turn so offensive so quickly.
When we interact with other people, we’re unconsciously tapping into years of social training which tells us what to say based on the other person’s culture, religion, political standing, age, and social standing in comparison with our own. We also know which things, generally, are completely unacceptable
While technology can do amazing work, a lot of it still needs the human touch to make it absolutely perfect.
For example, parents realised that the YouTube algorithm was unable to discern genuine children’s content, from scary content made by trolls masquerading as children’s content. In 2018, YouTube introduced ‘Collections’ with videos chosen by human staff members and partners at PBS. Facebook and Apple have also hired journalists to curate their news stories and choose with items to promote, as opposed to relying on the algorithm. Just because an article receives a lot of clicks, doesn’t mean it’s the one you want on the front page of your website.
The Value of Human Skills in Business
Big tech companies are famous for putting a lot of effort into hiring people who fit the company culture. They don’t just want people who are highly skilled in a particular area, they want people who will help the company mission.
One example is Airbnb, who are notoriously difficult to interview for, in part because of their focus on whether or not an applicant fits with their company values. Google are also known for being discerning when it comes to the personality traits of new-hires. Surely all of us care about having at least similar goals and mindsets to the person at the desk next to us.
We’ve looked at this in more depth when we talked about how soft skills can save a business. Companies nowadays recognize the value of having employees who care about the right things and have the right values.
The most successful companies today all put an emphasis on being customer-driven. To do that, you need professionals who are able to identify and relate to your customers. AI may be able to analyze your customers and design a car which hits all of their requirements, but it might be ugly as sin!
And how would an AI be able to come up with the narrative you use to sell your car? Could it make sure that the narrative was in-line with your company branding? Nowadays, branding plays such a huge role in influencing customers to buy our products. How many people walk around with a Starbucks cup because they genuinely think it’s the best tasting coffee in town, compared to the number who like the way holding that branded cup makes them feel? If a brandless smartphone with all the features and capabilities of an iPhone was released for a cheaper price, many of us would still choose the iPhone, because we believe owning it says something about us, and impacts how others perceive us.
Perhaps technology rules the roost when it comes to creating products, but humans will always be needed to create the stories to sell it.
When it comes to customer service, most of us still appreciate being able to interact with an employee directly rather than a chatbot when something goes very wrong. A customer who has purchased an item that turned out to be faulty isn’t going to head to a self-checkout machine to make a complaint, they’ll want to speak to a human who can relate to their problem and make the situation better.
Product Management is a Human Job
By this, we don’t just mean that product management is done by humans. We mean that it requires human skills. Some things just can’t be automated. Product management takes creativity, gut instinct, and experience. It also involves the curation of ideas, from teams, stakeholders, customers etc.
Part of being a product manager is being a leader without authority, which requires the art of influence. It’s highly unlikely that we’ll see any AI advanced enough to wield the nuance, storytelling, and empathy that this requires.
Looking back at our previous example of Airbnb, let’s imagine that there are two applicants for a Product Management job. One is a futuristic AI driven robot, with the ability to analyze tasks and prioritize based on a complicated algorithm, and can understand the work the engineers do even better than they understand it themselves. Or Jane Smith, a professional with 10 years experience specifically in the hospitality industry, who has a magic touch when it comes to influencing stakeholders and is also an experienced traveller. Who would Airbnb want to hire? Unless the robot is equipped with the curiosity and welcoming nature that Airbnb requires in their employees, it looks like Jane has just landed herself a job!
What Does This Mean for AI?
AI certainly has a bright and interesting future. Each generation comes with its technological advances that frighten some of us to death. We used to fear electricity, and it was believed by scientists that women’s bodies were too fragile to survive a train journey. It takes time for us to settle in and feel comfortable with new tech, but the advantages that AI and automation will provide and well worth exploring.
The key to advancement will be the marriage between human skills and technology.
*from Deloitte's 'The Future of Work in Technology'