"AI is going to the change the world more than anything in the history of mankind," Kai-Fu Lee told Scott Pelly in Sunday's edition of 60 Minutes.

Lee, a pioneer in artificial intelligence, predicted that artificial intelligence will automate and potentially eliminate 40 percent of jobs within 15 years. While the segment focused primarily on that unsettling scenario, 60 Minutes did not highlight the most empowering aspect of Lee's work--with the right skills, humans can survive, thrive and stand out in the new age of AI.

I spoke to Lee upon publication of his bestselling book, AI Super Powers. Yes, he says, AI will replace "repetitive" jobs--those tasks that can be automated like robots are doing in factories. It will also potentially replace many "white-collar" tasks in the fields of accounting, healthcare, marketing, law, hospitality, and other areas.

A Blueprint for Humans and AI to Co-Exist

In his book, Lee offers a blueprint for how humans and AI can co-exist. The secret lies in the fact that AI--for all its "intelligence"--doesn't have the one quality that makes us uniquely human. Emotion.

He tells the story of a friend who built a touchscreen device for elderly people at home who needed assistance. They order food, watch TV, consult a doctor, all from their fingertips. Those tasks, however, were not nearly as popular as the customer service request function. People were not calling customer service reps to report problems. They were calling to have someone to talk to. 

"Once material needs were taken care of, people wanted human contact, another person to trade stories with," Lee writes.

We can thrive like never before, says Lee, if we double-down on those qualities that make us uniquely human. AI is incapable of building trust between two people (or between customers and a company). It cannot inspire teamwork, show passion or exhibit empathy because it has no imagination.

Leaders Have an Edge in the Age of AI

The jobs of the future, says Lee, will require creative, compassionate, and empathetic leaders who create trust, build teams, inspire service, and communicate effectively. He told me:

"People don't want to listen to robots making speeches, leading the company, or giving pep talks. They do want to listen to robots in conversation making friends or earning our lifelong trust. Nor do they want a robot to do tasks like teachers and nurses. We will end up with the inevitable outcome that large numbers of routine jobs will be eliminated and large numbers of empathetic jobs will be created."

Empathy isn't just a buzzword. It's the key to succeeding as a leader in the age of AI.

"Leadership is about emotions. Great leaders are exquisitely attuned to others' emotions," writes Dr. Helen Riess in The Empathy Effect. She cites neurobiology studies which show that most people have a preference "for leaders who above all else express empathy and compassion." Empathetic leaders recognize the feelings of other people and respond appropriately.

Reiss has a point. In the outpouring of emotion for the late Southwest co-founder, Herb Kelleher, the employees who knew him best recalled his enormous heart, empathy and compassion for his team. Empathy is a quality that Reiss and others believe leaders can develop.

It requires a uniquely human quality that AI doesn't have: imagination. Without imagination, you can't put yourself in another person's shoes and sympathize with their point of view.

That's why Lee told me there will always be room for great leaders, despite the very real disruption that AI will bring in the near future. "We can choose the ending to this AI story," he told me. He suggests we let machines be machines and let humans do what we do best: be human.

Published on: Jan 13, 2019