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Will A Robot Steal Your Job? How Marketers Can Thrive When Machines Rule

If you listen to Elon Musk or Stephen Hawking, you probably picture the future as a dystopian techno-hell where artificial intelligence becomes self aware and replaces humanity at the top of the food chain. And if you’re watching the trends, it’s easy to be paranoid.

In the current anemic economy, industries are automating as fast as possible. McDonald’s is at the forefront of robo-fast food. Amazon is testing fleets of delivery drones, Uber is readying an army of self-driving cars, and most stock market trading is driven, or influenced, by an algorithm. No one is untouched by our world’s insatiable drive for efficiency; or if you’re a sci-fi fan, our inevitable path toward the singularity.

For marketers, this swiftly changing world is altering the very nature of what you think you do. And if you’re not afraid, you’re not paying attention. Algorithms are writing articles, designing logos, editing video, and enabling enormous freelance communities to bid for client work. Robots are mimicking human handwriting, drag and drop programming tools are simplifying web development, and programmatic promises an all-digital future where most media is bid, placed, and optimized on a dashboard. And that’s just the tip of the holographic iceberg.

Many of us watch this unprecedented transformation and respond in one of two ways; we either put our heads in the sand and hope for the best, or we try to beat the machines at their own game. As I wrote previously, new fringe movements like microdosing and a seemingly ubiquitous obsession with productivity and self improvement are all just vaporous efforts to become the things we are afraid of. For many, if you can’t beat the machines, then you might as well become one.

A Third Way

But the future of marketing doesn’t have to be viewed as our own version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where marketers eat each other alive in a desperate struggle for earth’s last remaining scraps of sustenance. No, (spoiler alert) marketing doesn’t end on McCarthy’s beach in utter despair. A third option exists that eschews the foolishness of hiding from reality and the vanity of trying to beat the machines, and it looks at you in the mirror every morning.

The answer isn’t to try to do what the machines do but better. The answer is to focus on what the machines can’t do. To retain value in the Age of the Machine, human marketers don’t need to become machines, humans need to become more human.

As Kevin Kelly, futurist and founding editor of Wired, recently discussed in a Newsweek interview, one of the major misconceptions about artificial intelligence is that it replaces human intelligence. Kelly points to self driving cars to make his case. Artificial intelligence isn’t replacing a uniquely human skill with self driving cars, AI is replacing a function that is a struggle for most humans. The truth is, most of us are terrible drivers.

Artificial intelligence and human intelligence are not the same thing. AI simply replaces functions that humans conduct because we have to. AI does not supplant distinct human intelligence. The key to retaining your value in the Age of the Machine is to find and then focus on the intelligences that are uniquely human; and that just so happens to be the messy stuff. Humans are especially good at navigating grey; the stuff that can’t be quantified, placed on a spreadsheet, or programmed in 1’s and 0’s.

In short, humans are good at creativity.

Creation is a unique and mysterious act largely reserved for humanity. Monkeys can throw poop at a painter’s canvass, but humans are the only beings in this world that can make and mold and find meaning. Humans are capable of art. While a robot is vastly better at calculating equations, humans are better at creating robots.

What To Do

The first step to thriving in the Age of the Machine is to evaluate your job and consider what may be replaced by an algorithm. The trick is to look for value in the “fuzzy.” The more prescriptive your function, the more vulnerable it is to automation. The more creative your function, the more human it is. For marketers, this paradigm places value on relationship-building, interpretation, planning, strategy, creativity, conceptual thinking, advising, maintenance, support, continual-learning, and more. If it’s fuzzy, inefficient, and relationship-based, it’s human. And if you don’t want to be replaced by a robot, it’s your future in marketing.

After you refocus your efforts on being more human, the next step to thriving in the Age of the Machine is to befriend one. Kelly points out in his new book, The Inevitable, that the most successful chess player in the world is not a human. But it’s not an artificial intelligence, either. The most successful chess player in the world is a human/AI team. Human/AI teams are known as centaurs, and have been researched by a variety of fields, including the military, for years. Centaur teams tend to move faster, smarter, and more creatively than their human or AI-only counterparts. For those of us facing a future dominated by dashboards, learning to view the artificial intelligence behind the screen as a friend that can make your human intelligence, well, more intelligent, is key.

If you are trying to win the race with the machines, or worse, you have fallen into the lie that you must become one, then the future filled with automation and artificial intelligence is dystopian indeed. But if you can find your value in the creativity that is a uniquely human intelligence, then the machines don’t pose a threat, but rather represent an opportunity for you to be more human than you could ever imagine.

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Published on April 5th, 2017

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