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Humans define themselves by what technology can’t do: An Interview with Simon Waller

As a technology expert and Founder of the Digital Champions Club, Simon Waller has long been wrestling with the paradox between the enablement of technology and its disruption to the workforce.

 Sitting down with ADAPT’s Director of Brand Communications Kylie Bonassi, he discusses how people can take advantage of technology to “do better work and lead better lives.”

Kylie Bonassi:

You’ve managed to bring the human truth to the event. You talked a lot about cognitive computing. How do you feel that is impacting humanity?

Simon Waller:

Our definition of humanity evolves with technology. Go back a few thousand years to the time of Alexander the Great and what it meant to be human was survival-based. It was the ability to lift a big sword up and swing it around your head. Then we went through the Agricultural Revolution and with technology, we had an abundance of food and that survival instinct gave way to something else.

We entered the Industrial Revolution. We had then see ourselves as our ability to make things. We could do with our hands mattered. On the other side, Western society’s definition of humanity is tied to our ability to think.

Throughout that change though, what we’ve seen is that we’ve ultimately defined ourselves by what our technology can’t do. We don’t want to be confused with being like a robot in an industrial automated car factory or a self driving car. So we come up with a different definition. At the moment that is around that cognitive ability. We’re seeing the rise of things like machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) where that’s now kind of under threat. So we have now our computers that are smarter than the smartest people.

And so then obviously the question becomes what is it that we become next? Technology doesn’t care about us. It has no capacity for meaningful emotions. What we ultimately shift towards is that the next iteration of what it means to be human is tied to that ability to have compassion and form relationships with people.

Kylie Bonassi:

So you mentioned as well, when you say automate the task not the relationship, what do you actually mean by that?

Simon Waller:

We’re in a interesting phase of that. It’s due to revolution. Where in some ways we’re still kind of a little bit overwhelmed by the novelty of it all and the potential of it all. My challenge to people is, are we using it for the right things? In the future of work, automate low value repetitive tasks that especially information driven jobs that we don’t enjoy doing. But be very careful that we don’t allow technology to take over and displace meaningful work. The example I often give is about how we communicate with each other.

Don’t confuse the fact that you put a blog post out to 3,000 followers that that was relationship building. That’s just information sharing. Real relationship building is actually far more intimate than that. It’s also very limited. So the research says that we can actually only have 150 meaningful relationships. So we’re forced to chose about who we want to have those relationships with.

But in some ways, that’s what retains its value. Because if we could automate relationships, they’d just become cheaper. We have a value around experience and customer service. We want the cafe to sit in and eat our sandwich that someone made for us and listen to ambient music. But we’re automating that as well. What we value in life is the things we can’t automate. Don’t use automated systems for the wrong things.

Kylie Bonassi:

You will lose value. What I think’s great about the way that you speak and how you share your thought leadership is the stories you tell to help us all along on the journey with you. What is the role that those stories play?

Simon Waller:

So, funnily enough, I used to be the most logical, practical person when I spoke. I would give people all the facts and all the data and be sure that that was going to lead them towards making a good decision. But often actually just served to overwhelm people.

Stories are the pathway towards care, and compassion, and understanding. So when I share those stories about my family and about my mom, I want to reveal to people that I’m just another person.

There’s an interesting idea that I have that people ultimately are motivated by the reason, not the justification. So often, especially in business, we’re expected to justify our decisions. We justify them with business cases, return on investment, and comparative analysis.

Ultimately people act because of the feelings that they have. So reputation, fear, love, all these things are actually the reason that we do things. So often as much as we need to present the justification, we also need to actually appeal to people’s sense of reason. Those emotional connections and stories are a really great way of doing that.