The human-tech partnership

100% Human at Work
100% Human at Work
by Sinead Dineen
10 January 2024

Is AI a threat or an opportunity in the workplace? This was the question posed to the audience at the beginning of a panel discussion on ‘AI and the path to building a human future of work’ at the 100% Human at Work Gathering in Sydney.  

One of the panel members, Dr Fiona Kerr, founder of the NeuroTech Institute & FocusNTI, suggested it’s both – and it’s up to us to shape it and use it effectively. An expert in both human connectivity and synchronisation and systems engineering, Fiona spoke during the session about the unique power of humans and how we can partner with AI in the future. 

The power of in-person interaction

Fiona explained how her organisation looks at the physiological changes in our brains and bodies when we interact with others in a positive environment, and how that changes over technology. “We are electro-chemical bags of sensors that impact each other hugely when together, trading thousands of chemicals (mostly via ‘emotional sweat’) when sharing space, and synchronising brain activity through voice, gaze, appropriate touch and proximity (called interbrain synchronisation which we can watch happen in real-time). This massive amount of electrochemical information impacts how we think and make decisions, how we feel, bond, and build trust.”  

Fiona explains that this connectivity can also make us smarter: “The electrochemical boost we give each other’s brains when we synchronise allows each individual brain to work harder, creating more intra-brain cross-connectivity and collaboration so that we bring more of our brain to a problem. Empathic engagement with other humans also alters logic pathways and can help us to think differently, scan wider, and solve complex problems more effectively, increasing creativity and facilitating different logic leaps when we think and act together. This was born out in an experiment we ran on complex problem solving by individuals interacting alone with trusted technology, vs those who first collaborated in person with another human, then tackled a complex problem alone via technology.” 

100% Human at Work
100% Human at Work

The vast majority of this electrochemical synchronisation only happens in a shared physical environment; it is different when virtual, and while some parts of the brain light up remotely, many do not (others never turn off, further increasing cognitive fatigue). The good news is that once we meet face to face, we create cognitive changes in each other that mean we ‘connect’ more over screens too, but this cannot be technologically gamed (our brain can tell the difference).  

So, when we are structuring work, it is important to get together in the beginning and also to consider the science behind what we do best when we co-locate, and what we can do well virtually.  

Humans are unique

AI is capable of doing wonderful things but so are humans. For the human-tech partnership to flourish we need to understand the best of both. Fiona suggests that we should start not with the latest technology but with the opportunity, goal or problem. “Then spend time thinking about the things that both people and AI can and cannot do. AI can parallel process massive amounts of data and is increasingly predictive, but the neural networks are still basically linear, whereas those of humans are amazingly extrapolative, intertwined, and abstractive. In short, AI follows rules, we break them.” 

This makes humans particularly good at complex (wicked) problems. “Complex thinkers combine quantitative and qualitative data (including experience, expertise, and wisdom) to clarify the criteria by which relevant information is chosen, and also to filter out irrelevant data. This creates unique but efficient logic pathways, influenced by empathic interaction, that allow humans to think more widely and within a longer timeframe. They consider and look for what they may have missed in ways that are cognitively ‘messy’ but very efficient. Conversely, the prevailing AI (and some humans) are ‘goal-driven optimisers’ that work with a minimum level of information (defined by the algorithm) to achieve the programmed goal or close the problem down quickly (sometimes with alarming consequences).  

100% Human at Work
100% Human at Work

Fiona says: “In effective problem solving we think about consequences and look for disconfirming information: what am I missing? What else do I have to consider? What else is this going to affect?”  

As humans, we do multiple things in our brains at the same time, we think differently, and we emote.  

Shaping our future with AI

Technology has had both positive and negative impacts on various areas of our lives, for example, our attention span has been reduced and we have changed the way that we process data, consider and connect. By relying on technology such as our mobile phones, we use our memories less, and in basic terms we get dumber. But if we manage the technology, then it can be an amazing enabler for accessing and managing information, interacting, and communicating. It is about being cognisant of what both humans and technology do uniquely well and leveraging both. It is knowing we easily habituate, become distracted and lazy, and making sure we counteract this design goal. 

The future is about shaping. Fiona suggests that: “Our goals shape our future, and our ways of creating it. We need quality goals (rather than those aimed at profit or attention) - ones that consider: what do we want the world that we live in to look like? How do we want to care, communicate and collaborate? What is it that we want technology to enable us to do? and ‘What don’t we technologise? This brings truly awesome outcomes, so let’s actively shape our future with AI by determining how we want to work (and live) together.”  

Dr Fiona Kerr is the founder of the NeuroTech Institute & FocusNTI and consults and researches globally to find solutions to emerging, complex problems, combining diverse qualifications in systems engineering, cognitive science, psychology and anthropology.  You can read more about Fiona’s work in The Art and Science of Looking Up, her article on innovation, and in the overview of the Neurotech Institute on Innovation.