Rules for humans in the age of automation

I recently read Futureproof by Kevin Roose. Kevin is a technology writer for The New York Times. The book has two parts to it; I skimmed through the first part but found the second part interesting. It is a list of nine rules designed to help us, humans, navigate a world increasingly run by machines.

I want to call out four of them that struck me as very insightful.

Be Surprising, Social, and Scarce

This is a rule that captures what jobs are likely to stay and therefore how we should direct our careers.

  • Jobs where the situation changes quite a bit day to day. The premise is that machines cannot deal with surprises very well, but humans can. Jobs such as emergency-room nurses, occupational therapists, and police detectives are hard to automate.

  • Jobs that appeal to the social and emotional aspects of our lives will stay too. Good lawyers now become legal therapists, and in the age of Orbitz, travel planners take care of you by knowing you personally and paying attention to your travel needs holistically.

  • Jobs that require extraordinary talent, involve high-stakes situations, or unusual combinations of skills. These are scarce jobs, often impractical or undesirable to automate.

Leave Handprints

This is a rule that asks us to show our human side wherever possible. For example, we could show our work but we could talk about how we did what we did. We could send a handwritten note from time to time.

This rule also means that work that involves human skills will command a premium. An example from the book: a highly complex but factory-assembled Blu-Ray player may be $50, but a handmade ceramic bowl could be $750.

Don’t Be an Endpoint

The first rule above talked about jobs that are hard to automate. This rule is about what jobs can and are likely to be automated.

Endpoint here is a reference to “API Endpoint”. It means your job should not be translating between two sets of people because they cannot (yet) talk to each other directly.

Telephone operators from school days comes to my mind, or perhaps lift (elevator) operators. These jobs disappeared in the course of my own life, short as it has been.

Learn Machine-Age Humanities

Kevin puts a number of soft skills in this bucket that become important in today’s world.

  • Guarding your attention and not allowing yourself to be distracted easily
  • The ability to read a room, i.e. gauge and understand the intentions of people in a room
  • Knowing how to take rest and resting often, instead of focusing on hyper-productivity
  • Showing discernment when consuming online sources of information
  • Thinking about the consequences of your work before actually making it available to the world

Ending Note

You can read the remaining rules and perhaps buy a copy of the book yourself from Kevin’s website. An appendix gives an even more concrete action plan, if rules by themselves don’t appeal to you much.

See also