In the AI Age, “Being Smart” Will Mean Something Completely Different

In the AI Age, “Being Smart” Will Mean Something Completely Different

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By Ed Hess. As seen on Harvard Business Review.

Andrew Ng has likened artificial intelligence (AI) to electricity in that it will be as transformative for us as electricity was for our ancestors. I can only guess that electricity was mystifying, scary, and even shocking to them — just as AI will be to many of us. Credible scientists and research firms have predicted that the likely automation of service sectors and professional jobs in the United States will be more than 10 times as large as the number of manufacturing jobs automated to date. That possibility is mind-boggling.

So, what can we do to prepare for the new world of work? Because AI will be a far more formidable competitor than any human, we will be in a frantic race to stay relevant. That will require us to take our cognitive and emotional skills to a much higher level.

AI Age Being Smart

Many experts believe that human beings will still be needed to do the jobs that require higher-order critical, creative, and innovative thinking and the jobs that require high emotional engagement to meet the needs of other human beings. The challenge for many of us is that we do not excel at those skills because of our natural cognitive and emotional proclivities: We are confirmation-seeking thinkers and ego-affirmation-seeking defensive reasoners. We will need to overcome those proclivities in order to take our thinking, listening, relating, and collaborating skills to a much higher level.

I believe that this process of upgrading begins with changing our definition of what it means to “be smart.” To date, many of us have achieved success by being “smarter” than other people as measured by grades and test scores, beginning in our early days in school. The smart people were those that received the highest scores by making the fewest mistakes.

AI will change that because there is no way any human being can outsmart, for example, IBM’s Watson, at least without augmentation. Smart machines can process, store, and recall information faster and better than we humans. Additionally, AI can pattern-match faster and produce a wider array of alternatives than we can. AI can even learn faster. In an age of smart machines, our old definition of what makes a person smart doesn’t make sense.

What is needed is a new definition of being smart, one that promotes higher levels of human thinking and emotional engagement. The new smart will be determined not by what or how you know but by the quality of your thinking, listening, relating, collaborating, and learning. Quantity is replaced by quality. And that shift will enable us to focus on the hard work of taking our cognitive and emotional skills to a much higher level.

We will spend more time training to be open-minded and learning to update our beliefs in response to new data. We will practice adjusting after our mistakes, and we will invest more in the skills traditionally associated with emotional intelligence. The new smart will be about trying to overcome the two big inhibitors of critical thinking and team collaboration: our ego and our fears. Doing so will make it easier to perceive reality as it is, rather than as we wish it to be. In short, we will embrace humility. That is how we humans will add value in a world of smart technology.

AI Age Being Smart


Ed Hess is Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business and co-author of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age (Berrett-Koehler, 2017).

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