Ep 136: Teens Vs Automation

Episode Summary

Kevin Roose, author of Futureproof, speaks with us about what AI and automation means for the future of humans–and how to speak with teens to prepare them to remain relevant in the information age.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Our kids are heading into a new era–one full of self driving cars, automated grocery shopping and endless social media. They’re growing up surrounded by technology, and these gizmos and gadgets only become more prevalent every year. It’s nice to imagine a future where robots do all the work and we humans sit back with our feet up–but it’s also scary to imagine a world so controlled by computers that our kids might just lose their humanity!

It’s understandable to be worried about your teen coming of age in this environment. They’re entering a job market where employment opportunities are slowly being eradicated by automation. People like travel agents and bankers have been forced to watch as their jobs are taken by iphone apps and digital kiosks. 

Not only that, but the  constant digital stimulation of iPhones, laptops and tablets is rearranging teens’ brains on a molecular level, inhibiting their social skills,  productivity and sense of reality! It’s frightening how much control technology has over all of us, especially growing teens. So how can we prepare young people for a future full of tech and automation?

Kevin Roose, our guest today, asked himself that same question a few years ago. He decided to dive into research about humanity’s growing dependence on technology, and then put  his findings into a book. It’s called Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation. In it, he reveals how the key to surviving in the world of  robots is not to become more robotic ourselves but instead, become more human. 

In our interview, Kevin and I get into every question you might have about how AI is changing society. We address the concerns you may be having about your kid’s job prospects in this future full of automation and algorithms. He also explains how you can help teens use their phones to learn, create and connect with others instead of just scrolling mindlessly through Tik Tok. 

The Skills that Separate Us From Robots

We know that automation is taking away jobs that historically belonged to humans, but surprisingly, most people seem to think their own employment is safe. When surveyed, three quarters of people said they thought that artificial intelligence would cause people to lose work,  but only about a quarter thought they were at risk of losing their own job. Kevin believes we are all far too overconfident. In the episode, he explains how AI is capable of all sorts of tasks beyond what we might imagine. Even journalists and artists, he explains, are at risk of losing work to AI.

So how can we prepare kids for this new job market? Some people believe we need to behave more like robots: become more efficient, logical, precise and accurate. But Kevin disagrees. He believes that to stay afloat in this brave new world, we’ll have to dive deeper into the things that make us distinctly human. 

When  giving young people advice about what to major in to find success in the age of automation, he often tells them it doesn’t matter as much as they think. Kevin expresses how important it is for young adults to actually develop their collaboration and communication skills along with whatever craft they choose to pursue. Their mathematical expertise can easily be met by a computer, but their kindness and empathy cannot. When they find their job taken by AI, their unique human attributes will remain–and these are what will help them find their footing  in the job market again.

In our interview, Kevin also introduces the fascinating idea of combinatorial creativity: the ability to take knowledge and experience regarding one subject, and transfer it to another. This allows us to find innovative, outside-the-box solutions to problems. Humans are great at this, while robots are not. That’s why Kevin suggests that teens branch out to multiple interests instead of just specializing in one thing. This versatility allows them to maximize their combinatorial creativity, and use their natural intelligence in a way that AI can’t.

There’s more challenges to growing up in a technology saturated world than fearing unemployment. Kevin and I also talk about why teenage obsession with screen time isn’t the healthiest, and how we can help teens make the most of technology instead of letting it dominate their lives.

Taking Control of our Tech Habits

Every day, Kevin allots sixty minutes for what he calls his “human hour.” For the entire hour, he puts his phone away and goes on a run, reads a book, or does anything else that makes him feel human. Kevin began doing this because he felt his phone was beginning to control him, and he wanted to gain that control back. He even went on a thirty day phone detox, and wrote an article about it. The article was wildly popular, causing Kevin to realize just how many people feel like their devices dictate their life.

Kevin explains that this is not an accident. Companies who create the apps we use put a lot of effort toward making their products addicting. They spend billions of dollars to ensure that we get sucked in and can’t stop using. Kevin describes it as “a supercomputer pointed at your head”….and that’s what it can feel like! It’s frustrating because our devices are supposed to help us be efficient and connect with others, not make us go crazy.

That’s why Kevin suggests that teens (and parents) should schedule some time away from phones to reset. He describes how, after his detox, he was more productive and social. If you can, help teens find time when they can set aside their devices and go for a walk, or play the guitar or talk to a friend. They might resist, but it can be a great way for them to break free from the grip of Netflix and Instagram and get some peace of mind.

We’ll never get kids to really ditch their devices, however, Kevin and I discuss how you can help teens use their phones to be creative, network and learn new things. It’s easy to limit kids’ screen time, but Kevin thinks that’s not enough. We also need to be mindful of how they’re using their devices. Are they just staring mindlessly at the screen, playing endless games of Candy Crush? Or are they socializing with their friends, building websites and reading about current events? In our interview, Kevin points to the difference between passive use and active use, and how teens can use tech as a tool for growth.

In the Episode….

Kevin and I have fascinating discussions in this episode about the intersection between human and artificial intelligence. On top of the topics mentioned above, we cover:

  • Why we can’t have a “happy symbiosis” with AI
  • How kids can benefit from phone-free interaction
  • Why a computer could never teach a kindergarten class
  • What Kevin doesn’t like about the phrase “media literacy”

Although a future full of tech can feel frightening, there are ways humans can remain relevant!  The interview with Kevin was thought-provoking and I think listeners may find themselves thinking about how to raise kids that are future-proof.

Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to share and subscribe. We’ll see you next week!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Get your kid thinking about how to remain relevant in the future:

“In the age of AI and automation, what’s going to separate us is not our depth on any one topic, it’s going to be our ability to shift between topics and apply cross-domain knowledge.”

-Kevin Roose

2. When your teen is concerned about what to study or major in:

(Members Only)

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: So the book is Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation. And it’s about your journey to understand what is the future going to hold, and is AI going to destroy humanity or is it going to be a beautiful rosy existence and we live hand in hand with technology, or where are we going to end up? You have been writing about technology related topics for a long time now, is that how you got interested in AI? Or where did this come from?

Kevin: Yeah. So I started looking into AI and automation seriously maybe three or four years ago. And at the time, this was what everyone in Silicon Valley was talking about. Giant companies were spending billions of dollars developing new AI. People were splitting into two camps, this optimists who thought AI was going to make the world better and transform everything and we would become enlightened humans who just spent all our time making art and playing video games and stuff because the robots would be doing everything for us.

Andy: Right.

Kevin: And then there were pessimists who thought AI is going to kill all the jobs and we’ll be obsolete and we’ll just become the slaves to the robots. And I was just interested in figuring out which of those was true, or if the truth was somewhere in the middle. So I started talking to researchers, going to meetings, trying to learn as much as I could about what was actually happening in AI. And also to, more importantly, figure out what we should do about it. Because that was the piece that seemed to be missing from the discussion was, what do we actually do about this on a human response level? We need to adapt to whatever’s happening, and so I wanted to try to help people do that.

Andy: And so did you find an answer or are you more confused after doing all this research? Or where did you end up?

Kevin: Well, I found a lot of answers. And the second half of the book is nine rules that I think will help people adapt and adjust to the age of AI and automation. But the biggest thing that I found was that we’ve been preparing people for this future all wrong. For many years, we’ve been telling people, kids, adults, students, that in order to be prepared for the future, we needed to be more machine-like ourselves. We needed to study engineering or computer science. We needed to work super, super hard all the time and grind and hustle and optimize our productivity and life hack all of the waste and inefficiency out of our daily routines.

Kevin: And what experts in this field told me is essentially the opposite. That we need to become better at the uniquely human things that only we can do. And that instead of trying to train people to be essentially competing with machines, we need to figure out our own niches and figure out what we can do that is going to be very hard to automate.

Andy: There’s one theory that I’ve heard a number of times, which is that humans and AI will end up collaborating and work together in teams. And that when the computer and a person play chess together, they are actually even better than when either one plays on their own. So there’s maybe a happy symbiosis that happens between us. Does that seem possible?

Kevin: I thought that, and I love that story of the humans and computers playing chess together-

Andy: That seems like such a happy picture…

Kevin: Oh, it’s amazing. It’s like, we’re all going to live together in perfect harmony and life will get better and robots will be our friends. Unfortunately, it’s not true. I mean, it was true for a while, humans and computers could beat computers alone at chess. But within the last decade, that’s become totally obsolete. I mean, now computers just wall up us every time and even wall up us when humans are paired with computers. And actually, that’s happening in many, many domains, not just chess. There’ve been some studies that have found that in a lot of areas, whether it’s making decisions about who should get a loan and who shouldn’t, or predicting certain types of risk, modeling certain types of outcomes, AI is better without us. We are essentially the dead weight in those relationships.

Andy: It’s like the two people riding a two person bicycle, and one is not pedaling at all, just slowing the whole thing down.

Kevin: Exactly. And the person who’s not pedaling thinks, wow, this is great, such teamwork, this is amazing. And in the meantime, the AI is just carrying us around. So it’s, I’m being a little flipped, I think there are some areas where humans can still add value, especially when the AIs encounter unfamiliar information. I mean, humans are still much better than computers at coping with unexpected setbacks, learning from new and novel situations, what is called zero-shot learning in computer science. Taking something that you’ve never encountered before and figuring out what to do. That’s something that humans are still much better at than AI. So humans are not totally obsolete.

Andy: Okay. So they did a survey, a Gallup survey, and they surveyed people and found out that everybody seems to think that, at the same time, AI is super powerful, it’s going to really take over a lot of people’s jobs in the future, but not my job because I do something that just could never be taken over by computers. Does that just mean we’re all probably fooling ourselves, or how is it that everybody has convinced themselves that they do something that won’t be able to be taken over?

Kevin: Yeah. This is one of the most amazing things I’ve found while researching the book, is that we are very overconfident in our own irreplaceability. And I include myself in this too. But if the survey you mentioned, I think found that three quarters of Americans think that AI is going to destroy more jobs than it creates, but only one quarter think that AI is going to come for their job. And this is true throughout history. I mean, one of my favorite articles that I found when I was researching this book was from 1984. There was a story in the New York Times about these new ticket machines that were appearing at airports, where people could just, instead of talking to a travel agent, you could just go up to the machine and buy a plane ticket using your credit card. And they interviewed some … the reporter who wrote the story interviewed some travel agents and they were incredulous.

Kevin: They said, no way will people ever order a plane ticket through a machine. I mean, can you even imagine that? I mean, who would trust a machine to book a plane ticket for them? It’s much too important. And now obviously, we all use the machines to buy our plane tickets. And travel agents still exist, but there are many fewer of them. And so I think we make this mistake again and again, of thinking, well, automation is someone else’s problem, this is never going to happen to me. And I see that attitude among a lot of my colleagues in journalism right now, who say, oh, there’s no way a machine could ever do what I do. And meanwhile, startups are working on automating their jobs right now.

Andy: Yeah. So does that just mean that no jobs are safe?

Kevin: Well, it means that no job is automatically safe. No job is, by virtue of the job title, totally immune from automation. Every job can be made more safe. And that’s what the second half of the book is about, is I think there are some jobs that are more human than others and that have more human elements to them than others. So if you’re a factory worker or a truck driver or a retail cashier, those jobs are generally easier to automate than jobs like artists and musicians and journalists. But even the artists and musicians and journalists contain a range. I mean, my first job in journalism was writing corporate earning stories. So every quarter a company released their earnings and I would sit there and look at the press release and go, okay, Alcoa made $9 million in its smelting division last quarter. And I would just write that out.

Kevin: And now those jobs have been automated. Software is being used to generate those stories in a lot of major news organizations. So every job contains very robotic tasks and very human tasks. And what we need to do is figure out which are which, and do more of the human things, because the rest is going to be going away.

Andy: So is it the same thing like in college, or if you’re trying to choose what to major in, is it less about what topic you’re studying and more about finding those types of things within whatever field it is that are not easy to automate?

Kevin: Yeah. I get asked this question a lot by parents who say, what should my kid be studying? Or even I get it from students who say, what should I be studying? If it’s not computer science, what is it? And my general take on this is that skills and traits make you more resilient than subject matter knowledge. So if you are a computer programmer, that’s a job that is being automated in some cases. They are not safe from automation, even though they are the ones creating a lot of the automation.

Kevin: And so it matters if you have human skills to layer on top of those technical skills. If you’re a computer programmer, you need to be good at communicating with people who aren’t as technical. You need to be able to be good at coming up with new and creative solutions to problems. There are these skills that even if the programming language or the subject matter becomes obsolete, you have these transferable human skills that can help you make the jump to another profession. So that’s what I’d focus on if I were a student today. It’s not necessarily what major I had or what classes I took, but how do I build these skills, these deeply human skills that are going to be helpful in making me hard to replace no matter what I end up doing as my career.

Andy: And one of those things you talked about briefly earlier is dealing with unexpected things or things that don’t match the previous patterns, the surprising things. And you talk about a study in here or 2018 experiment, they’re trying to teach AI to recognize objects in a room and they teach it how to recognize all of these different objects in the living room, which it gets really good at. But then once they put an elephant into the living room, it totally starts to confuse the software to where it just can’t figure out what’s going on. What does that tell us, I guess, about how it works and what things it’s not good at doing?

Kevin: Right. Well, this is an example of AI’s limitations. Right now, AI likes things that are really structured and regular and repetitive. And so things like chess, where if you’re an AI trying to learn how to play chess, you can play 10 million games against yourself, getting a little bit better each time, and eventually you’ll beat even the best humans. But a lot of things in life are not that repetitive or that iterative. We don’t have 10 million chances to get something right. So I think that’s where humans have the advantage, is these sort of situations and jobs in which there is a lot of change and a lot of chaos and very few regular predictable events. Which is why an AI could beat a human in chess, but it would be very bad if you asked it to teach a kindergarten class, because that’s not a job that involves a lot of regularity of any kind.

Kevin: So I think that’s the kind of thing that I’m trying to shift the conversation around AI and automation, from what jobs should I get to, how should I do that job, what kind of traits and skills are important no matter what I’m doing.

Andy: And so one of those that you talk about that I found really interesting is combinatorial creativity. What the heck is that, and why is it so important and why is it uniquely human?

Kevin: Yeah. So combinatorial creativity is a word that Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, I first heard that phrase from her. And it’s basically this idea that we take things from one area of our lives and combine it with something else and come up with some new ideas. So there are examples of this through history, like famous inventors who play musical instruments and have big breakthroughs while they’re playing musical instruments, or-

Andy: When an apple falls on their head.

Kevin: Exactly, when an apple falls on their head. But I mean, humans are very good at this. We take something that we learned 10 years ago in a totally different context, and we apply it to a problem we’re trying to solve now.

Kevin: But machines are not very good at doing that right. There’s this thing called transfer learning, which is basically where you’re building an algorithm to do one thing and then trying to have it learn to do something totally different. And it’s not very good. So we still have the advantage when it comes to that combinatorial type of expertise, these rare combinations of skills, these things that we take from one area of our lives and apply somewhere else. That’s something that humans are very good at that AI is not very good at.

Andy: So then is there something that we should be doing to get better at that, or to use that to our advantage somehow, to do our jobs and live in a better way?

Kevin: Yeah. Well, I think we can embrace the diversity of experiences that give rise to that combinational creativity. So one thing I tell writers who ask me for advice, people who are journalism students who are coming up in the writing world is, is develop multiple niches. So one of my favorite writers is James Fallows at the Atlantic. He’s also a pilot in his spare time. He flies his own planes. And that expertise you would think is like, what does that have to do with being a writer? But it has actually made him an extraordinary storyteller. It’s given him the ability to … when things like a big plane crash happens and it’s all over the news, he’s able to actually understand the intricacies of what it means to fly a plane and explain how that happened.

Kevin: Just with this big container ship that was stuck in the Suez Canal for the last week or so, there are a couple of journalists who are really maritime shipping experts. And so that expertise has become very valuable all of a sudden. And so I think building up these different skills in different parts of our lives that we can combine together when the opportunity strikes is really important.

Andy: Yeah. Because then you’ll just … situations will come along where you can see how there’s overlap in different skill sets that you have that can be used in a new way. But it’s like you need to have lots of those different perspectives and skill sets to draw from, and you also have to be in a lot of different situations.

Kevin: Mm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that we have taught people about the value of being specialists and I think there’s certainly something to that, that expertise is good and people who have it are generally well-positioned. But there’s also the having multi-specialties, having different things that you can go deep on, I think is really an underrated skill.

About Kevin Roose

Kevin Roose is an award-winning technology columnist for The New York Times, and the New York Times bestselling author of three books: Futureproof, Young Money, and The Unlikely Disciple.

He is the host of “Rabbit Hole,” a New York Times-produced podcast about internet culture, and a regular guest on “The Daily,” as well as other leading TV and radio shows. He writes and speaks regularly on many topics, including automation and A.I., social media, disinformation and cybersecurity, and digital wellness. Before joining The Times, he was a writer at New York magazine, and a host and executive producer of “Real Future,” a documentary TV series about technology and innovation. 

Kevin lives in the Bay Area.

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