Emerging Technologies

In the robot age, are you sure you're a human?

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In a rapidly changing world, it's important to hold on to the things that define us Image: Amanda Dalbjörn/Unsplash

Leena Nair
Global Chief Executive Officer, Chanel
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

At the top of Mount Olympus, Hephaestus – the Greek god of fire and a blacksmith – built a palace for his fellow deities. Inside, he crafted robotic golden statues to serve them.

Greek mythology tells us that a fascination with the robotic is as old as western civilization.

In the intervening centuries, so advanced have AI, robotics and digital technologies become that sometimes it’s easy to think we’re being overtaken by innovation. 67% of CEOs even believe that technology – not humanity – holds the key to the future of their companies.

Yet to hide in fear of a jobless apocalypse and a grim vision of rule by robots is to focus on only one side of a complex argument. Flip this negativity on its head and we see that, far from dominating life, technology could be used to help define and complement the human in all of us.

To embrace this opportunity, however, we need to change our perspective. We need to understand why this world feels so upside-down, what we can do about it and how, as leaders, we can help others thrive in a world where relentless change is the new norm. We need to take back control, reframe the argument and start putting humans – not technology – first. We need to be more human.

What do we need to thrive in this changing world?
What do we need to thrive in this changing world? Image: H Heyerlein/Unsplash

As someone who works in human resources, it’s my responsibility to connect with, understand and act on the needs and ideas of people. What I’ve learned from this is that, as human beings, we have the ingenuity, the talent, the intelligence and knowledge to create opportunity from all this change.

We can change fast as the world, but to do so, we need to question ourselves. What does it really mean to be human? What is it that we need to thrive in this changing world? And how can we use technology to amplify, not overtake, our uniquely human traits?

The power of purpose

Something I’ve noticed about change is that it makes people feel adrift: they lose sight of who they are, what they stand for and where they’re going in life. Yet, when they find their purpose, they feel anchored.

Purpose acts as a reassuring compass that helps us thrive in the storm of change. It connects us to something bigger than ourselves – a core set of values that defines who we are. It also fosters a sense of community and human-to-human collaboration. Research shows that having a purpose even helps us live longer.

Have you read?

Just imagine what we can achieve together when we scale this effect. We know that purposeful people work on purposeful brands. We also know that consumers are increasingly drawn to brands and products with an evident sense of social or environmental purpose. And we know that purpose-driven companies are valued more highly on the stock market. So, purpose not only drives us as humans, but it drives business too. Companies with purpose last, brands with purpose grow, and people with purpose thrive.

Lifelong learning

A few years ago, my 75-year-old father joined a class of 20-year-olds to learn computer science. Afterwards, I joked with him that it really is possible to teach an old dog new tricks!

Yet, how often do we hear that the half-life of a skill today is two and a half years? That today’s primary school children will do a job that doesn’t yet exist? And that our jobs will soon be stolen by robots?

Having spent some time with neuroscientists, I know that an integral part of being human is being wired to learn. Just like my father, we all have an in-built curiosity that, when piqued by a new skill or interest, helps us to develop focus and a sense of meaning.

Avatarmind's iPal smart AI robots, designed for children and the elderly
Avatarmind's iPal smart AI robots, designed for children and the elderly Image: Reuters/Steve Marcus

So again, by being more human and investing in lifelong learning, businesses can re-skill everyone and prepare them for the future. Across the globe, online learning platforms, tailored to individuals’ interests, are already proving successful – which shows us that, in this upside-down tine, technology is not the threat but the enabler. With the right frame of mind, we can use technology to augment our natural curiosity and thrive in these changing conditions.

More human

The final piece of the jigsaw when we talk about being more human is our need to feel understood and valued as individuals. In a digital world, a one-size-fits all approach would no more work for different brands than it would attract different customers.

Yet rarely do leaders think of their own people in this same, personalised way.

Far from homogenising people, technology can help us do just that. Employees in some businesses are now given access to health and wellbeing tools online, helping to relieve stress and reduce absenteeism. Technology can also be used to put people in the driving seat, giving them more choice over how and where they work, and how they’re rewarded for it. It can even eliminate unconscious bias during the recruitment process, making for a more diverse, personalised and fairer work culture.

The age of STEM-pathy

Essentially, being human means being able to build relationships with one another.

In fact, it is collective movements and collaborative thinking that have helped us survive so many centuries of change. The era of the hands with the industrial revolution; the age of the head when the digital revolution dawned; and now, the age of the heart as the Fourth Industrial Revolution progresses.

This is an era in which human empathy – alongside STEM skills – will be paramount. An era in which the sum of a group’s talents – not merely money or technology – will be the measure of business, and the measure of society overall.

Let’s be more human and start thriving
Let’s stop waiting for the AI storm to pass Image: Matheus Ferrero/Unsplash

During previous eras of change, we have faced challenge; we have struggled with our sense of identity; and yet, we have found a place in the world for ourselves and everything that it means to be uniquely human.

So, as we stand here at a crossroads today, we cannot stop – or even slow – the rate of change. But we can prepare for it. To do so, we need to change our mindset and start thinking differently.

Humans have thus far conquered all – and I believe they will continue to do so. So, let’s be more human and start thriving in this upside-down world together. Let’s stop waiting for the storm to pass – and just start dancing in the rain.

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