gc_book_HUMANS_betterIs the rise of computers in turn breeding a sort of “new romanticism”? That’s what David Brooks suggests in The New York Times, discussing a book by Geoff Colvin, Humans are Underrated.

Colvin argues that improving your cognitive skills is no longer good enough. Simply developing more generic human capital will not help people prosper in the coming economy. You shouldn’t even ask, What jobs can I do that computers can’t do? That’s because they are getting good at so many disparate things. You should instead ask, What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?

It’s interesting to consider how many different things computers are becoming able to do now. It’s a popular theme in science fiction lately to consider what the effect of that is going to be on society. Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End is such a book. Vinge, who helped popularize the idea of the technological singularity, has been thinking about this a while. In Rainbows End, we see many future citizens are interested in role-playing fiction worlds in real life—they seem to have the freedom to do this as there isn’t as much actual work to be done. As computers become more capable, are people going to become more philosophical?

Brooks believes that tasks focusing on empathy and interpersonal skills, the sorts of things that computers can’t do so well, are the kinds of things that will be more important.

It’s an interesting thesis, but it seems to me the problem with that is that not everyone is going to be that kind of “people person.”

After all, someone has to run the computers.


  1. I can think of many, many, personal services that I would like to purchase from other people, starting with pedicure and working upwards.The trouble is that I can’t afford them. There’s never going to be a lack of demand for things that only humans can do, although the number of these may diminish over time; the issue is whether the amount that people are prepared to pay for them will fund an acceptable life for the providers.

  2. All you need to do is look at where there is extreme poverty – especially outside the USA – to what it like for people to have no economic value. Today there are many people living with squalor under piecemeal huts; they own nothing but others peoples rubbish; they probably have no skills other than basic labor to sell – which isn’t wanted.

    On the other hand, Iain M. Banks wrote science fiction novels about a Post-Scaricity culture where anybody could basically have anything. Pipe dream.

    As a computer programmer I hope to kept the machines well oiled and running smooth. If I had to depend on my empathy I might be just as well off struggling to keep the side of corrugated tin to build my hut.

  3. The problem isn’t that automation has driven down wages, but that automation has driven down wages non-uniformly. Previously poor people had problems finding enough to wear. Today, thanks to automation, basic clothing is effectively free world-wide. Pencils, lighting, even mobile phone service is available to the poorest humans. The problems start when other basic needs, like housing and medical care, remain expensive. If automation can reduce costs across the board then it won’t matter if people have low wages because they will also see low costs.

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