Computer vs. Human Code

Here is a fundamental question: frustrated young business man working on laptop computer at offiWill the machines take over one day? Recently, this question knocked on my consciousness in a number of ways.

First, the news: Scientific leaders as diverse as Tesla’s Elon Musk, physicist Steve Hawking, Google DeepMind head Demis Hassabis and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak joined over 1,000 other tech and scientific leaders this week in an open letter presented at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires. The letter strongly supports a ban on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in military weaponry, forewarning against a new arms race characterized by autonomous weapons. In other words, machines that kill.

Second, the cover story: Fortune magazine’s cover story for July 23, Humans Are Underrated, speaks optimistically to the idea that as technology forever changes the way we work and live, the core aspects of humanity – relationship building, communal structures and empathy – will be called on to greater extent in the years to come. We will survive and ultimately thrive as a species because we are human, not in spite of it.

Third, the feature: Sebastian Junger, in June’s Vanity Fair piece, The Never-Ending War; The Bonds of Battle, delves into the plague that is PTSD from historical precedent to modern day manifestation. Junger links the power of communal experience on the battlefield to the very human need for connection that buffets us against trauma and creates a level of resilience that is nearly un-diminishable.

What binds these stories together is the essence of human coding, our inherent “humanness.” That humanness is our need for others. Sure, we are all individual actors with our own individual experience of choice and free will. Yet a collection of individual agents would likely have hobbled along over the millennia, ending up not too far from their original state. It is because of our ancestors’ decision, by choice, circumstance or DNA, to exist collectively that humankind leaped forward. As Junger writes, “Humans evolved to survive in extremely hard environments, and our capacity for co-operation and sharing clearly helped us do that…Personal interest is subsumed into group interest because personal survival is not possible without group survival.”

We have an uneasy relationship with our technology. On the one hand, we find it impossible to live without. Imagine the average professional spending one week managing his calendar on paper, using a typewriter to send off memos or painstakingly managing accounts through manual ledgers. No wonder industrial economies employed scores of workers; the administratia alone was a labor hog.

We are also afraid of it, obsessing about the rapidity of computing power advances (Moore’s Law) and its implication that one day humans will reach their own obsolescence. The open letter supporting a ban on AI in weapons development is a cautionary example, and a sign, that human code may be more tenacious than machine code.

In the realm of work, where the earliest indication of technology irreversibly changing human life appeared, humanness will remain in heavy demand. Fortune’s cover story shares the results of a McKinsey Global Institute  study that “found that from 2001 to 2009, transaction jobs (bank teller, checkout clerk) decreased by 700,000 in the U.S., and production jobs decreased by 2.7 million. But jobs of human interaction—doctors and teachers, for example—increased by 4.8 million.” As computer code takes over the kinds of jobs that are repetitive and tightly defined, true value will be created in those jobs requiring emotional and socially driven skills like compassionate interaction, discerning judgment and emotional consideration. After spending the Industrial Era in a race toward efficiency, predictability and financially driven returns, it’s refreshing to see a place for messy humanness.

The history of modern work can be boiled down to a simple equation: human labor creates goods, which create demand-pull markets, which create a greater need for human labor, which creates….you get the picture. A seemingly endless loop of production and consumption. Such a loop begets jobs that shape and support communities, and the recent Great Recession has seen the collapse of notable US cities on life support. This is not a good scenario for any community.

No doubt, the revolution we are living through now is not going to suddenly halt and reverse course. Production-based jobs, no matter how broadly one wants to define them, will move to cheaper labor sources. Eventually, the machines will take these jobs over. And why not? Economically and socially, there are benefits. Not only is a company free from labor costs, there is also freedom from concerns over worker rights and safety. After all, a machine does not need to feed her family or worry about bodily injury.

Which opens us humans up to add greater value through work that serves, enriches and advances us all. Computer code, no matter how elegantly crafted or lovingly written, is unable to look into someone’s eye and see the shared humanity within. Computer code, as beautifully realized in the film Her, does not share the moral understanding that our innate desire for connection, and all it requires, saves us. It is this human code, passed down over thousands and thousands of years, which enables us to share the same goals, endure the same sacrifices and enjoy the same triumphs. It is our trump card, the most enduring code of all.




  1. Clothing , food , housing and human relationship have much higher value than the smartphone and any computer-based machines.
    Computer sciences have brought breakthroughs in many areas but increased the amount of work, ironically.

  2. There is no everlasting value.
    Values have changed relatively.

    Being and non-being produce each other.
    Difficulty and ease bring about each other.
    Long and short delimit each other.
    High and low rest on each other.
    Sound and voice harmonize each other.
    Front and back follow each other.
    – Lao-Tzu

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