The current development of AI (artificial intelligence) can be likened to the early years of electricity when it replaced steam power in manufacturing. At the turn of the century, most textile factories were still powered by flowing water and waterwheels.

SwissCognitiveFactories that installed steam engines had to use pulleys, belts, rotating shafts, and a host of complex gear systems. Factories were built largely around a rigidly imposed steam engine, impairing any possible workflow efficiency.

Interestingly, when manufacturers began to use electricity, engineers couldn’t imagine an alternative layout like the modern-day assembly line. Instead, they grouped electric motors in a big cluster, forgoing the benefit of decentralized power to optimize workflow. It took almost another two decades before manufacturers were able to unleash the full benefits of electricity.

Today, big organizations still think of AI as a cost-cutting measure that substitutes human labor in paper processing. Although this can be all-important, the biggest potential is likely to be augmentation — freeing up managers from white-collar drudgeries so they can engage more in creative and emphatic activities.

The upshot is that artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cognitive computing can exert either a complementary effect or substitutional pressure. But that outcome is not predetermined. Atul Gawande — a celebrated surgeon, writer, and public health researcher — explained exactly why human interaction remains paramount in the age of AI.

He shared a simple scenario at a local clinic. “I have pain,” a patient complains. “Where?” the doctor asks. “Hmmm. Well, it’s sort of here.” The patient points with one hand. “Well, do you mean there under your rib cage, or do you mean in your chest or your stomach . . . ?” To Gawande, this intimate interaction is as much about a patient telling her story as it is about a doctor probing a patient. “It’s more of a narrative than it is a straight set of data.” A physician needs “not only to ask you to take off your clothes but then to actually have permission to cut you open and do what [he] choose[s] to do inside you.” Trust, empathy, and dialogue are what make health care ever so human — that only we can fully grasp the meaning of compassion, pride, embarrassment, envy, justice, and solidarity. […]