Focusing on the imaginary superiority of people is a mistake, according to Martin Weigert.
I recently watched the film Wall Street again. It is still a great movie, even 29 years after it first came out in theaters. There is one scene that particularly sticks with me: Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) fights his way into the office of devious financial investor Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), with the tenacity of a born salesman. He watches in awe as Gekko places orders for million-dollar financial deals in one call after another, at top speed and with minimal time to think. Fox and the audience are witnesses to the celebration of a human super genius – a persona that has now, three decades later, completely lost its magic.
In the era of cloud computing, artificial intelligence and big data, little remains of the myth of the human brain's exceptionalism. Talent, experience and intuition still have their role to play, but when a smart decision requires lightning-fast analysis of huge amounts of data, machines are fundamentally more skilled than people. Even a Gordon Gekko cannot keep up. That is why most trading on financial exchanges is now conducted by computers .
People naturally are reluctant to admit that human abilities that had once been seen as irreplaceable are suddenly being challenged by computers. A typical reaction is for those involved to find some positive view of their own performance compared with a computer, come hell or high water.
That is how the President of the German Taxi and Car Leasing Assocation (BZP), Michael Müller, sounds. In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt , he tried to explain why knowledge testing continues to be necessary for taxi drivers, despite the rapid rise of navigation systems. In Müller's view, a GPS can never completely replace a driver with exceptional knowledge of local roads. “A driver who knows his way around gets the customer to their destination faster than one who has to rely on GPS.”
This might still be true for the moment – or it might not. The reality is that navigation devices are improving almost daily when combined with crowdsourcing and smart city infrastructure. The best taxi drivers can still only rely on their relatively limited brain capacity and their experience, and naturally, because they are human, make mistakes. Intelligent real-time navigation software such as Waze , which can also use data from other network agents, will ultimately outperform anything people can do, no matter what their knowledge and experience. If only because the widespread use of such services is changing driving behavior to such an extent that even the secret routes of the best taxi drivers are suddenly subject to traffic jams.
In my view, trying to find arguments to defend supposed human superiority in a discussion of the relationship between people and machines, in areas where computers are clearly better equipped to excel, is the wrong approach to take. Particularly as no one is going to listen for long. Wherever machines can do the same or a better job than people, and consumers see no need for a person to be part of the experience, machines will sooner or later win top honors.
“Consumers see no need for a person to be part of the experience” – that is the decisive factor: If a person's presence is part of the desired service, then it no longer matters whether a computer can do the job better. People will still be needed for it. DJs creating a dance experience are one example. In theory, a computer could mix songs just as well or even better than any artist on the stage. But in that case the dance floor would be empty. The presence of a human being creating energy and desire is at least as important to the audience as the music.
We can look at this principle to bring human effort back into the competition in other areas, as well. If consumers value the presence of a person at least as much as the service being accessed, than automation is no threat. Spinning off some wild ideas from this: Maybe taxi drivers could gain additional training in psychology or mindfulness therapy to help ease some of their riders' worries during the drive. Stress at the office, relationship problems, in-law issues – if after a 45-minute ride and conversation, passengers emerge from the vehicle feeling better than when they got in, then they are sure to want to come back. They might even demand the presence of a human “driver” in a self-driving taxi!
Of course this is just one idea. Digitization is helping service industry and business players develop their own ideas about how the service provided can be centered on what (for now) no machine can compete with: the real-world, inimitable advantages of a flesh-and-blood person.