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Moving The Economy Beyond The Turing Test And Man Vs. Machine

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It’s a popular concern these days to worry that when machines pass the Turing test, we’ll be replaced by robots. Well, it’s time to be incredibly worried, because we already have.

The Turing test, if you remember, goes like this: There are two closed rooms with a human in one room and a machine in the other. An interviewer asks questions and if the interviewer can’t tell the difference based on the answers, the machine passes the Turing test. And a robot will take your job.

Now, imagine a restaurant boss. In the first closed room there’s a guy washing dishes. In the second room there’s a dishwashing machine. The boss sends in dirty dishes. The dishes come out clean from both rooms. The dishwasher passed the Turing test!

“Hey, that’s not the Turing test!” you might say.  “The boss didn’t even ask any questions!”. Well, don’t complain to me about that and good luck complaining to the boss. “The dishwashers are there to wash dishes, not to talk” he might say.

He’s right. The dishes need to get done in the cheapest and best way. This is the task-centered economy we are living in today. In the task-centered economy, the dishwashing machine passes the Turing test. Machines replace people. Things get cheaper to make. But people need to earn in order to spend, so the economy shrinks.

A  “people-centered economy”, maximizing the value of people, can beat the task-centered economy in a near future. For the first time in human history we have the tools for individually tailoring jobs to fit every human’s skills, talents and passions. We can have a long-tail labor economy, where job-eBays and job-Match.coms replace the Monster.coms of today.

In the people-centered economy, a Turing test is a Turing test. The restaurant boss will talk, ask questions. He will tell the difference between the human and the dishwashing machine in no time. The machine will do the dishes and the boss will chat with the human about what they can do together to add maximum value to the restaurant, using all the unique qualities of the human. There is a huge market for IT-tools for figuring this out, tools like “Jobly”, the one Vint Cerf and I sketched in “How to disrupt unemployment”.

For the first time in human history we have the tools for individually tailoring jobs to fit every human’s skills, talents and passions. We can have a long-tail labor economy, where job-eBays and job-Match.coms replace the Monster.coms of today.

The people-centered economy is the “The Untapped $140 Trillion Innovation For Jobs Market” that I wrote about in my earlier column.  Value creation and productivity will skyrocket. Economic growth will increase exponentially. There will be as much innovation helping people to earn more as there is innovation helping people spend more. Higher earnings means more spending. It can be the return of a thriving middle class.

If you ask me, all the confusion around technological unemployment tells us this: the task-centered economy is about to fail. Soon we can create robots to do our jobs and create robots to handle our consumption. Then we can throw all humans, including ourselves, off a cliff and the task-centered economy will just go on humming without us.

So let’s talk about a meaningful economy and return to the Turing test. Now we replace the dishwasher with that ultimate artificial intelligence that can do everything a human can do.

The boss can’t tell the difference between the human and the machine any more, no matter what he asks. In fact, he takes quite a fancy to the computer and suggests they go out for a drink together after the Turing test. “Sure thing, I’d love that” says the computer in order to pass the test. The boss bounces up to the door, opens it and… Heartbreak!!

So the computer may have passed the “Turing test”, but it didn’t pass what I call the “Buber test”, named after  Martin Buber, the philosopher who wrote the book “I and Thou”.

The Buber test is as important as the Turing test for discussing the economy. The humane economy defines meaning: improving interpersonal connection, relating to other living beings.

There are only two types of relationships, says Buber: “I-You” and “I-It”.  “I-You” is connecting with another living being. It’s a completely different feeling from relating to an object. My friend is a “You”, my computer is an “It”. The Buber test is not about doing, it’s about being.

We are not built for loneliness. We can not be ourselves without a “You”. Emotional loneliness can only be cured by a “You”. Loneliness is, by the way, as dangerous for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And two fifths all older people in the UK say the television is their main company. What can we say about economic systems that don’t count that as a red number?

The Buber test is as important as the Turing test for discussing the economy. The humane economy defines meaning: improving interpersonal connection, relating to other living beings. We create the means for doing that by relating to things: ideas, objects, activities.

Some might think this is too wishy-washy to be economics. Can this be expressed in numbers? We don’t want to put dollar signs on friendship, intimacy and human closeness. It simply wouldn’t work, because “You”, objectified,  becomes “It”.

Today people think it’s good ethics when the most competent candidate gets the job. Jobs should not be dished out to friends, they think. There are some ugly names for that, like ‘nepotism’ and “old boys club”.

Still, we work much better with people we like and trust. I suggest that denying the value of human friendship in the economy is not good ethics, it’s lousy ethics. It chains us to the sinking ship of the task-centered economy.

The ugly part of the old boys club is not that they hand out jobs to friends. The ugly part is that the old boys club is not open to making new friends, it’s not inclusive.

Empathy puts us in the mood for inspiration, affects our choices and plans. It improves teamwork and culture.

We need economics that sees dollars as means and improving the connection between people as the meaning.

Empathy. They can imagine the world from multiple perspectives—those of colleagues,clients, end users, and customers (current and prospective).

By taking a “people first” approach, design thinkers can imagine solutions that are “inherently desirable and meet explicit or latent needs”, says Tim Brown, the founder and CEO of IDEO.

So the humane economy will be an even better economy than the others. But watch it – we’ll need to find new ways of measuring the economy than those we use today. Because even though empathy between people is a recipe for increasing revenues, we must not fall into the trap of seeing interpersonal connections as the means and creating revenues as the meaning.

We need economics that sees dollars as means and improving the connection between people as the meaning.

I can think of economic models that measure “I-You”-quality, like empathy, and translate that into meaningful economic value. Put the psychologists to work, measure workplaces, teams, and I think they will confirm that the best economy is the one that brings people together in the best ways.

Featured Image: Les Pounder/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-SA 2.0 LICENSE