AI and Human Curiosity

Source:  HBR, Apr 2017

Curiosity has been hailed as one of the most critical competencies for the modern workplace. It’s been shown to boost people’s employability. Countries with higher curiosity enjoy more economic and political freedom, as well as higher GDPs. It is therefore not surprising that, as future jobs become less predictable, a growing number of organizations will hire individuals based on what they could learn, rather than on what they already know.

Since no skill can be learned without a minimum level of interest, curiosity may be considered one of the critical foundations of talent. As Albert Einstein famously noted, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

Curiosity is only made more important for people’s careers by the growing automation of jobs. At this year’s World Economic Forum, ManpowerGroup predicted that learnability, the desire to adapt one’s skill set to remain employable throughout one’s working life, is a key antidote to automation. Those who are more willing and able to upskill and develop new expertise are less likely to be automated.

AI is constrained in what it can learn. Its focus and scope are very narrow compared to that of a human, and its insatiable learning appetite applies only to extrinsic directives — learn X, Y, or Z. This is in stark contrast to AI’s inability to self-direct or be intrinsically curious. In that sense, artificial curiosity is the exact opposite of human curiosity; people are rarely curious about something because they are told to be. Yet this is arguably the biggest downside to human curiosity: It is free-flowing and capricious, so we cannot boost it at will, either in ourselves or in others.

computers can constantly learn and test ideas faster than we can, so long as they have a clear set of instructions and a clearly defined goal. However, computers still lack the ability to venture into new problem domains and connect analogous problems, perhaps because of their inability to relate unrelated experiences. For instance, the hiring algorithms can’t play checkers, and the car design algorithms can’t play computer games. In short, when it comes to performance, AI will have an edge over humans in a growing number of tasks, but the capacity to remain capriciously curious about anything, including random things, and pursue one’s interest with passion may remain exclusively human.


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