Advances in artificial intelligence have sent shivers down the spines of those fearing the consequences of building human-like machines. But an equally scary scenario is already playing out: humans acting like machines.
Last month, my husband lost his job and I got to witness firsthand the distinctive choreography of large-scale corporate layoffs. It was a Friday morning. I had just come home from dropping our daughter at daycare and found my husband in the kitchen, unable to get into his work G-Drive. Perturbed, he checked to see whether he still had access to his email. He did — and there was a message informing him he’d been fired — and to please be available for a call with HR in the midmorning.
I was working from home that day, researching a story about artificial intelligence (AI), and the nosy journalist I am, asked if I could join the call. In the small window of time available, my husband exchanged frantic messages with his colleagues to find out who was in and who was out. It soon emerged that his entire team had been axed, including a young woman who’d recently relocated from Africa on a visa dependent on the position. Meanwhile, I turboresearched German labor law.
At 11 o’clock, the HR lady appeared on the top left of my husband’s laptop screen. In the box beside her, a senior manager — a survivor! — whose presence appeared to be a formality. My husband and I sat up straight, our pens at the ready.
At this juncture, it is worth sparing a thought for the HR lady. If we thought we were having a bad morning, imagine conducting back-to-back calls informing people that their lives were being upended with immediate effect.
Her eyes darted from left to right as she spoke, informing my husband of the practicalities. He would be placed on gardening leave for a month — the term conjured images of familial bliss planting tulip bulbs on the balcony — and, contingent on signing a termination agreement, there would be severance pay calculated in accordance with years of service. A hard copy of the termination letter would be delivered by courier by 3 pm. If this didn’t happen, it was very important that she be informed. My husband would have to return his laptop to the office within two weeks.
Perhaps it was because I’d been pondering the effect artificial intelligence was having on humanity that the HR lady’s robotic delivery left such an impression on me. Watching her read from her script with a demeanor and intonation not unlike what you’d expect from an avatar, I felt deeply sorry for her. I wondered how she’d be spending her evening, and for how long she’d lived with the knowledge that she’d be charged with this unenviable task.
Much has been made in recent times about the profound impact AI is having on our lives. Bots like ChatGPT and DALL-E can now generate creative texts and works of art indistinguishable from those a human might make. An esteemed cognitive scientist I recently spoke to blew my mind when she told me that no one quite knows how these systems work. Awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure, serious questions are being asked about the impact these ever-more human-like systems will have on everything from democracy to warfare.
These are highly legitimate concerns, which deserve their own podium. Absent from the conversation however is a concurrent trend that is already playing out: what happens when humans begin acting more like machines?
One of the most defining features of the human brain, based on my rudimentary grounding in psychology, is the nature of its limitations. Unlike machines, we are profoundly bad at maintaining vast quantities of data at once. A 1956 paper by the cognitive psychologist George Miller found that when processing information, the magic number is seven, plus or minus two. In other words, the average human can keep track of between five and nine chunks of information at one time. Anything more, and we tend to get overwhelmed and forgetful. The very few individuals who display vastly superior processing are often pathologized, either as savants with autism, or in especially rare cases, as experiencing hyperthymesia — the tendency to remember their lives in extraordinary detail.
This is important when we consider the economy of today, in which a single CEO often oversees thousands, if not tens of thousands, of employees. No matter how often the family is invoked as a metaphor for a company’s culture, genuinely caring about this number of people is beyond human capabilities. How would you ever sleep at night?
Faced with the responsibility of a scale too large to comprehend, business leaders instead seek to serve the interests of smaller, more manageable sets of people. Individual shareholders are appeased by news of “cost-cutting plans” and collectively, we accept the absurd truth that the rise and fall of a company’s value have far more to do with the whim of a stakeholder than it does with the product on offer.
As globalization and the internet erode the barriers that used to contain economic ambition, the fallibility unique to our species is playing out on a stage we can no longer see. Directed by individuals blind to the impact of their performance and orchestrated by those powerless to stop it, the effect is, to use a very human term, soul-destroying.
The hiring and firing that has taken place in dominostyle since the pandemic show that the vicissitudes of the stock market and the actions of fellow CEOs are now a bigger driver of business decisions than long-term strategy. As a result, value is shaped not by the performance of thousands of employees and the reasonable expectation of the demands of millions of individuals, but by the impulses of small numbers of people looking for places to park unimaginably large quantities of money. This is reflected in the experience of the company my husband used to work for, which has hired freelancers — at a vastly greater expense than the staffers they are replacing — to do the work that still needs to be done.
We are right to worry about machines acting like humans. But with every LinkedIn post, I see from an individual confessing to being “impacted by the recent layoffs at [insert tech company]” I am reminded that we are already seeing the consequences of humans acting like machines.
In the weeks since being laid off, my husband has been spending more time with our daughter. One afternoon a few days ago, when the three of us were at home, she disembarked her rocking horse and took her first steps. In another world my husband would have been in the depths of his work G-Drive, shielded from the wonder in the room next door.
Edited by: Uwe Hessler
Author: Kate Ferguson