The Human Element: Three Things Technology Will Never Replace
We live in exciting times, where each new week seems to herald an all-new technological marvel. Some argue that relentless progress will be the death of the human spirit, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
There will always be parts of the human experience that computers will never be able to “revolutionize”—There will always be things that can never be digitized, and there will always be inherently human qualities that computers will never be able to replicate. Here are three of them.
Truthfully, I don’t know what collecting will look like 50 or even 10 years from now. Consumerism in America and beyond seems firmly centered on the accumulation of things—a fact best observed with a look at our shelves full of compact discs, DVDs, and hardcover books.
The committed music enthusiast will almost certainly be buying music on physical media until the bitter end, as will the literature buffs and writers out there; who doesn’t like being surrounded by shelves full of books, with their gracefully aging, faintly vanilla-scented pages?
However, readers and listeners have been grudgingly climbing aboard the Good Ship Digital Distribution, and driven e-reader and iTunes sales for a few years now. But what about the other things we collect?
What about the stamp collecting? Philatelists the world over would probably rise up as one if we ever saw an attempt at digitizing stamp collecting. Stamps are not just visual; the fact that they are functional and deliberately designed objectsadds to their actual and intrinsic value. There will never be a stamp analogue to the wall of square .jpeg images that comprises your iTunes library.
And yet, the Internet can find ways to revitalize even this venerable pastime. Stamp collectors used to have to subscribe to various publications to stay in-the-know. These days, the Internet has dramatically lowered the barrier to entry, putting this information at the fingertips of veterans and newcomers alike.
It’s absolutely no secret that machines are taking our jobs. Automation has made it faster and cheaper to produce just about anything we need in society, and with 3-D printers improving almost daily, we’re about to find ourselves in truly uncharted territory.
What this means, though, is that only a select few jobs may remain out of the hands of our new robotic overlords—at least for the time beings. These are the creative or interpretive jobs—the jobs that require deep thought, intuition, or (as the case may be) a stylistic flair.
Take the writer, for example. Earlier this year, NPR reporter Scott Horsley raced a computer algorithm to write a news story. Both machine and man wrote about the same topic, and the goal was twofold:
- Find out whether a human writer could outpace a “robot reporter”
- Find out whether a computer could match Scott’s quality and style
The findings were telling. While the computer handily outperformed Mr. Horsley in terms of speed (2
If it’s not obvious, Mr. Horsley’s story is on the right. Meanwhile, the computer’s version on the left lacks character, nuance, and charm.
The category of compassion is a wide one, so I’m going to narrow my focus to law. While many Americans might consider the judicial branch of the Federal government to be a labyrinthine and faceless mechanism, the truth is more complicated: as rigid as the law might feel at times, a great many of our laws are based on a simple ideal: compassion.
I’ve wondered from time to time if machines would someday be able to replace lawyers entirely. Again, though, this is based on the idea that the law is black-and-white and immutable. Sure; it might seem like being a successful lawyer is about little more than citing precedent and reciting legal statutes—two tasks that a computer would arguably do much better—but as we’ve seen with recent Supreme Court rulings, a just legal outcome is often more a matter of knowing the spirit of a law than it is knowing the literal wording.
The Supreme Court’s favorable decision on the Affordable Care Act from June 25th, 2015, demonstrated that, while the wording of the law, as drafted, may have precluded the establishment of healthcare subsidies at the federal level, the spirit of the law did not.
Another legal quagmire-in-process is the plight of women in the workplace. It remains a sad fact that in this country, sexual harassment at work is not alwaysexplicitly illegal—it’s simply morally wrong. And it may always take a human being to know the difference between the two.
There’s little question that technology is a force for good in all of our lives. Our goal, then, is to incorporate these advances into our lives in a way that complements, rather than replaces, the things that make us human.