• 07.19.13

The Four Things People Can Still Do Better Than Computers

Yes, it’s down to 4. You better be good at them.

Humans are good at some things. Computers are good at other things.


As Google CEO Eric Schmidt has put it, the key for humans who want to succeed in the future will be observing this “separation of powers” and collaborating with computers while specializing in what we do best.

But what is it that people are good at? If you had asked me today, I would say forgetting our keys, getting distracted and annoyed, and then thinking about where to get lunch. Human? Yes. Useful? Well… Luckily, a new report by scholars at Harvard and MIT has some more positive answers.

According to “Dancing With Robots: Human Skills for Computerized Work,” computers’ strengths lie in speed and accuracy, while humans’ strengths are all about flexibility. Computer programs are progressing from simple rules-based logic to pattern recognition, which uses more processing power and more data. Pattern recognition can deal with more complex tasks than rules-based logic, but it often works best as a complement to, not a substitute for, human labor. There are three types of work that humans do really well but computers cannot (yet):

1) Unstructured problem-solving: solving for problems in which the rules do not currently exist. Examples: a doctor diagnosing a disease, a lawyer writing a persuasive argument, a designer creating a new web application.

2) Acquiring and processing new information, deciding what is relevant in a flood of undefined phenomena. Examples: a scientist discovering the properties of a medicine, an underwater explorer, or a journalist reporting on a story.

3) Nonroutine physical work. Performing complex tasks in 3-D space, from cleaning to driving to cooking to giving manicures, which is thought of as relatively low-skilled work for humans, but actually requires a combination of skill #1 and skill #2 that is still very difficult for computers to master.

When you separate out these three factors, it’s easier to understand the complex ways that both technology and outsourcing are affecting the job market. David Autor at MIT calls it a “hollowing out” of the market. There’s a whole set of “middle-skilled jobs” like cashing checks, approving mortgage applications, selling airline tickets, typing and formatting letters, and taking tolls, that are being partially or fully replaced by computer programs. Some of these jobs disappear, and others become more complex and interesting as the computer takes over the routine parts of the task. (Bank teller to financial advisor; travel agent to specialized vacation outfitter; secretary to executive assistant).


In other words, what’s left for humans, after the robots have conquered everything, is low-skilled physical jobs and highly skilled, complex mental jobs. The authors conclude by recommending that we reinvent our education system to prepare children for an “increased emphasis on conceptual understanding and problem-solving”–and to better collaborate with, take care of, and program the computers that are going to continue to be our sidekicks.

However, by considering only the cognitive requirements for jobs, the authors of this report, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murmane, are leaving out a crucial point. The fourth thing that humans are much better at than computers is:

4) Being human: Expressing empathy, making people feel good, taking care of others, being artistic and creative for the sake of creativity, expressing emotions and vulnerability in a relatable way, making people laugh. The human touch is indispensable for most jobs, and in some cases, it is the entire job. In this one, humans win.

(Disclosure: The author has done some work for Third Way, which also published this report).

[Image: Flickr user Martin Fisch]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.