Friday, May 19, 2023

Human Exceptionalism – we need to get over ourselves

Human exceptionalism is the belief that we are unique. We evolved to see ourselves in this way. This extends to kinship with family, other social groups and our wider species Homo sapiens. Yet, since we started to create technology, especially writing, we have discovered, time and time again, through reflection and inquiry, that we are not as ‘exceptional’ as we assumed.

Copernicus threw our little sphere out into the whirl of the solar system, de-anchoring us from our central place in the known universe. What we had evolved to see was the sun moving round the earth, so the alternative was counterintuitive and shocking. The sun does not rise, it is the earth that falls. Yet symbolic writing – mathematics and data – was definitive on the matter. ‘Flat earther’ is now a pejorative term. 


Darwin then showed that a creator was not necessary for design and that we were just another animal, the product of a process of genetic accidents and selection. There was no designer only the ‘blind watchmaking’ of the evolutionary process. In fact, our cognitive, affective and psychomotor capabilities are limited by the evolutionary process – limited working memory, forgetting, cognitive biases, fallible and failing ling term memories, inability to network efficiently, sleep and death.


Physically, technology trounced us. It was thought we would die if we travelled by train, as we couldn’t handle the speed. Within 66 years of that first Wright Brother’s flight we had landed on the Moon. Physically we are generally weaker, slower and less accurate than the machines we create. That gap is widening. There is no place on earth we can’t get to, no physical task too big, as technology has extended our physical capabilities. Although, to be fair, the robot person, even self-driving car is still some way off. Strength and precision was not our strong point. It was mind. 


For a long time the focus was on robots and the mechanical side of AI, it turns out that the real advances in AI, were in the psychological domain. With this we turned to cognitive qualities, like critical thinking, collaboration and creativity. Surely technology couldn’t encroach on these unique skills? Once again, technology surprised us all – it can,



Economies have seen significant slow-downs in productivity. This has puzzled many. AI as one of the few areas where increased productivity was cleat and measurable. The internet , first with search on Google has massively reduced the need to find information and services. It has created an entire economy based on efficient services from Amazon to Uber. 


Productivity has now been turbo-charged with generative AI, where tasks that took hours can be done in minutes, if not seconds. The tasks that have been identified and already researched include: research, brainstorming, report writing, copy writing, coding, image creation and translation. This is merely the tip of the potential iceberg. 



The real gains come in replacing what expensively educated human being currently do – professional tasks such as managers, consultants, accountants, lawyers, teachers, doctors and so on.


There is nothing uniquely human about management, teaching, medicine, accountancy or the law. The professions really did turn out to be a conspiracy against the laity, creating a class that traded on being uniquely analytic and smart. The rewards went to those who worked with their head, while those that worked with their heart (social care, nursery staff) or hand (workers with physical jobs) were left behind in terms of pay and advancement. A rebalancing will happen.



Productivity has been levelling off for some time, yet the research is already showing significant improvements on speed and quality with AI. This one area has been happening for some time, with Google, search and tools such as word processing and spreadsheets. Almost every manager or administrator who has contact with generative AI sees an immediate increase in productivity.



A whole layer was created of consultants are paid handsomely to do organisational analysis and recommendations. It turns out that they are highly vulnerable to replacement by AI that has wider knowledge, better data analysis and clearer ways to recommend courses of action to organisations. We literally have consultancy on-demand, for free.



Compared to the huge amount of time it used to take researchers, Google Scholar reduced the time taken to find papers and citations buy orders of magnitude. We have also seen advances such as Alphafold, that took a billion years of research into 200 million proteins to create them all in 3D, thereby advancing science, particularly medicine, by disintermediating millions of hours of research and lab work. We will now see a further, more significant, release of potential productivity by researchers through AI, as its data capabilities, including synthetic data, grows to outpace human research in key areas. The bloated and expensive University system can be made far cheaper and more efficient.



If a virtual teacher increases the performance of learners, why would we persevere with teachers? They are areas where demand is huge and universal, yet supply limited and expensive. Forget the digital divide – the educational divide is far worse. The idea of a Universal Teacher is firmly on the horizon, one that has a degree in every subject and the pedagogic abilities of the best teacher, as that pedagogy is built into the personalised teaching process, available 24/7, to anyone, anywhere.



The average GP has close to a 5% error rate on diagnosis. If a virtual Doctor gets below that, let’s say 2%, why would we persevere with general physicians. We are more than happy to replace physical labour with smart machines, why not knowledge workers. Why should they get a pass when others did not?


This is why Bill gates sees learning and healthcare as the two big beneficiaries of AI. 

Being a teacher or physician are means to an end. If the means has better outcomes, we should embrace its potential.


Is there anything left?

We saw ourselves as being uniquely created creatures with exceptional abilities. Skills and abilities were seen as exclusively human. Yet, as we moved from the fields to factories and hardly anyone worked in agriculture, those skills were largely replaced by physical and psychological technology. When manufacturing skills were replaced by machines, we moved from factories to offices. We then thought that we’d all be invincible knowledge workers; high reward professionals who work in offices, or at home on Zoom – we are not. In fact, we are just as vulnerable to technological replacement as those previous groups.


To date that expertise has been expensive and lengthy to replicate in humans, so it remained scarce – too few doctors, teachers, lawyers, accountants, so the professions exist, with exceptionally long and expensive training periods, so are not available to all.  That captured cultural capital is can now be used to benefit us all. What we did not forsee was that writing, then printing then digital storage, had captured much of our expertise. It could be mined to generate through AI expertise on-demand, for anyone.


We have to accept our limitations and deal with this new future as best we can, to suit our needs. This is especially true in ‘learning’, a social good that through digital disintermediation can be democratised and brought to far greater numbers at very low cost. We need to get over ourselves. We are not as exceptional as we thought, in ANY domain. 

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