Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Humans are Underrated
What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will

By Geoff Colvin

Portfolio/Penguin.
248 pp. $27.95

‘Humans Are Underrated” serves up two different books in one, each interesting in its own right. The first offers an overview of recent developments in smart software and artificial intelligence. The reader learns about the bright future of driverless cars; IBM’s Watson and its skills at “Jeopardy” and medical diagnosis; and the software of Narrative Science, which can write up stories and, in some cases, cover events as well as a human journalist. The overall message is a sobering one: The machines are now able to copy or even improve on a lot of human skills, and thus they are encroaching on jobs. We won’t all have to join the bread line, but not everyone will prosper in this new world. That material is well argued, and those stories are becoming increasingly familiar ground.

The second and more original message is a take on which human abilities will remain important in light of growing computer efficacy. In a nutshell, those abilities are empathy, interpersonal skills and who we are rather than what we do. This is ultimately a book about how human beings can make a difference and how that capability will never go away. It’s both a description of the likely future and a prescription for how you or your children will be able to stand out in the world to come.

(Portfolio/Portfolio)

Geoff Colvin puts it pretty simply: “Rather than ask what computers can’t do, it’s much more useful to ask what people are compelled to do.” And what we are compelled to do is to contact other humans and seek value from them.

The theme of empathy recurs repeatedly. For all the virtues of software, it just can’t bring the same connection that human employees can. Good (human) managers understand how to motivate, how to set expectations, and when to offer rewards or perhaps enforce penalties. Face-recognition software may be able to judge our moods, but it doesn’t come close to having the same flexibility of response, or the same two-way bond, as a human who can hear and interpret our personal stories.

The future of the American economy will prize people skills above all else. Mark Zuckerberg was a psychology major; Steve Jobs also had a liberal arts background, which he drew upon to make Apple products attractive and compelling.

I wonder, however, if manipulation shouldn’t be added to the list of what one group of humans feels compelled to do to another. Precisely because we are able to identify what others are feeling, we can use that knowledge to influence their behavior. So the future of human employment isn’t just about the caring doctor, it is also about the marketer, the nudger, the data collector and the advertising executive. Think “Mad Men” with a vengeance. Don’t forget that the supposed empathy of the doctor, the sales representative or the military commander, to cite a few of the book’s examples, is often self-interested and directed toward bending our will, and not always in ways we would accept if they were made transparent to us.

Colvin presents the interesting hypothesis that today, empathy seems to be declining and narcissism rising, possibly because we are obsessed with the superficial use of social networks. But is this so? Contemporary America just put its stamp of approval on same-sex marriage, even though a strong majority of people are not gay.

My favorite parts of the book are about the military, an area where most other popular authors on automation and smart software have hesitated to tread. In this book you can read about how much of America’s military prowess comes from superior human performance and not just from technology. Future gains will result from how combat participants are trained, motivated, and taught to work together and trust each other, and from better after-action performance reviews. Militaries are inevitably hierarchical, but when they process and admit their mistakes, they can become rapidly more efficient.

If machines and smart software carry any major lesson for our world, it is that human teams matter more than ever. That’s the best and most important insight in this book. Another lesson is that the future, including future jobs, will be more and more about telling stories. That includes telling stories to motivate and organize people, telling stories to express empathy, and telling stories to make people happy. Again, the liberal arts will be a lot more important in our future than many people think.

One interesting implication is that the future may be what Colvin calls a “woman’s world.” On average, women seem to be strong at empathizing and storytelling; there is also good evidence that female participation makes groups a lot smarter. Indeed, we already see in the data that by historical standards, a disproportionate share of men fall into the category of the long-term unemployed.

“Humans Are Underrated” is a worthy addition to the growing collection of books about the new economy, in which, to quote Marc Andreesen, “Software eats everything.” It can serve as a good introduction to its core themes, but even if you’ve read all the other books in the field, it is still valuable for its insights into the enduring value of human performance and teamwork.