Why the future of work is not tech: it’s human identity

This article is part of WorkLife’s artificial intelligence special edition, which breaks through the hype around AI – both traditional and generative – and examines what its role will be in the future of work, for desk-based workers. More from the series →

As AI propels us toward a fully digital world, human intelligence — if one is to believe the most alarmist headlines — is destined to become some quaint notion of the past.

After all, the assumption goes, mere humans can never outwit the algorithm. 

But can the workforce retain the power of humanity at the same time it embraces and benefits from the latest intelligent innovations?

That question is behind the creation of The Disrupted Workforce, a community of people from every level of the work hierarchy dedicated to exploring the connection between tech and the human experience through podcasts and other programming.

Alex Schwartz, co-founder of the group, believes we tend to focus on the promise of technology without considering its ability to unlock human potential. “Everybody’s looking at Midjourney [generative AI model that creates artwork] and Stable Diffusion [text-to-image AI model] and everything that’s happening with AR [augmented reality], but they don’t realize that these programs are still trained on datasets with particular parameters and that we are ultimately focusing on human imagination, which is limitless,” said Schwartz, who earlier served as director of client services at Publicis Sapient, the digital business transformation unit of Publicis Groupe that works with clients like Finnair, Bang & Olufsen, and Pilot. 

The Disrupted Workforce was created not only to facilitate conversation around and promote better understanding of tech’s role in the human story but to reaffirm humankind’s own, indispensable role in tech’s evolution. “It’s about fostering a space where people can say, ‘I’m not ready, I am concerned for my career, but I feel really good about having this conversation about how I can prepare, navigate and thrive,’” said Nate Thompson, co-founder of the group and co-host, with Schwartz, of its eponymous podcast. 

“Everybody’s looking at Midjourney and Stable Diffusion and everything that’s happening with AR, but they don’t realize that these programs are still trained on datasets with particular parameters and that we are ultimately focusing on human imagination, which is limitless.”
Alex Schwartz, co-founder, The Disrupted Workforce.

The future of work is at the heart of the group’s mission, which, as Schwartz tells it, was heavily influenced by the theories of psychologist Carol Dweck, who contends that humans can embrace a “growth mindset” at any time in their lives. Schwartz said both he and Thompson benefitted from Dweck’s message of personal transformation during periods of transition in their own lives, being drawn to its concepts of continuous learning and adaptability — something that came to bear for us all as the pandemic struck.

Innovations like ChatGPT are miraculous — but, Schwartz stressed, they could never assume the place of social intelligence. “You can ask it to translate things into every language imaginable, but it can’t read the room,” he said. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of anxiety about emerging technology — and little wonder, with Goldman Sachs projecting that AI alone could eventually replace 300 million jobs. 

What’s more, a recent study by the asynchronous video messaging platform Loom determined that communication overload — facilitated by the latest tech tools — is derailing workplace productivity, with a majority (56%) of 1,500 office workers in the U.S. polled assigning negative attributes to AI in particular. 

The collective anxiety around emerging tech is not new. 

“I can’t remember a single, seismic tech innovation that didn’t start with an element of, the world is going to fall apart, it’s going to lead to massive job loss,” said Tom Libretto, president of the employee experience platform Workhuman. “Like in the robotic process automation space, the fear was that when it scaled, it was going to lead to massive amounts of job losses. What ended up happening was, it compelled a lot of organizations to rescale their workforces and put them on a higher value of work, and the net reduction in jobs never happened.” The fear around AI stems from the unknown, he stressed. 

“Humans are still unique in their abilities to define specific goals and then motivate and inspire entire teams to achieve them.”
Gary Mittman, CEO of AI-powered video platform KERV Interactive.

“In this new world of AI and the advanced development of sophisticated algorithms, powerful computing resources and vast amounts of data, humans need to embrace technology to make their work processes more efficient while understanding their purpose in the process,” said Gary Mittman, CEO of the AI-powered video platform KERV Interactive, which works with companies like NBCU, Disney and Audi. 

As AI advances, workers can differentiate themselves by developing skills that are still uniquely human, Mittman emphasized. Besides emotional intelligence, encompassing human instincts of empathy, self-awareness and relationship management, another example is leadership. “Humans are still unique in their abilities to define specific goals and then motivate and inspire entire teams to achieve them,” Mittman said. 

Yet another, he offered, is creativity. “Humans still have an edge when it comes to innovating and creating original ideas that are outside the box, beyond the learned and obvious,” he said.

While technology still outperforms humans on a number of levels — data analysis, for example, where AI can identify patterns and quickly analyze massive amounts of data with complex understanding of the details, nuances and variances — Mittman downplayed any man-versus-machine matchup. 

“Humans can leverage AI to save time with tedious processes, which then frees up more time to do the things we’re uniquely suited for,” he explained, adding, “It’s crucial to lean on your ability to adapt and perfect, leveraging human judgment, creativity and decision-making to inspire new thoughts and ideas.”