Yesterday I had a fascinating opportunity to explore with a group how artificial intelligence may impact thrivability and vice versa. At the invitation of master convener François Lavallée (who – to my delight – describes himself as an organizational biologist), I presented alongside Carole Bourassa, who shared her expertise about AI. The experience revealed a few widespread assumptions around AI that take on a decidedly different hue when viewed through a thrivability lens.  

The morning began by collecting the group’s questions about AI. Most reflected common fears: will it replace us, take away jobs, diminish our humanity? It was here that I saw the wisdom François had in bringing our two topics together: without the context and intention of thriving, AI is understandably scary and threatening.

After hearing the group’s questions, I introduced the concept of thrivability – the emerging view of organizations as living ecosystems, with the accompanying intention and practice of cultivating the fertile conditions for life to thrive within and around them. I explained that – as I see it – artificial intelligence falls into the category of relational infrastructure, supporting and connecting us in relationship with each other and the world around us. For example, AI is being used to enhance data analysis, information sharing and decision-making – all ways of being in responsive relationship with our world. As I shared with the group, such responsive relationship is one of the core fertile conditions that must be cultivated if any living system is to thrive.

As with other types of infrastructure, we have the power to choose how to design AI and – most importantly – to what end. Currently, it is reasonable to assume that it is being designed according to the dominant but outgoing worldview – the overarching story that tells us that everything in the universe, especially our organizations, operates like a machine. Within this story, employees, customers and nature are all believed to be external to the organization-as-machine. Efficiency, scale and ever-increasing output are the unquestioned goals. Powered by these goals, the progression of AI has its own unknowable and unstoppable trajectory. And humans are right to be afraid.

But when we embrace the emerging story that reveals our world and our workplaces as vibrant, dynamic living systems, then thriving becomes the explicit goal. In that case, we naturally ask: “How well is any artificial intelligence project connecting and supporting us in cultivating more aliveness and thriving?” Importantly, we also ask: “At what cost do we gain efficiency? Are we sacrificing craft? Are we diminishing our own intellectual capacity? Are we compromising human connection? How will we determine if these are acceptable losses?”

Assumption #1: Artificial Intelligence exists most of all to increase efficiency.

Thrivability Lens: Artificial Intelligence is designed by humans, therefore we can design it wisely to serve the fullness of life’s ability to thrive, including but not only efficiency.

As part of Carole’s presentation, we watched an enjoyable TED talk by Kai-Fu Lee called How AI can save our humanity. Lee offered the widely held view that AI is likely to replace jobs that are repetitive and routine – those focused on “optimization” rather than “creativity,” “strategy” or “complexity.”

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To that analysis he added another axis: jobs that require compassion and those that don’t. In each of the four quadrants, he suggests that AI will play a different role.

“AI will come and take away the routine jobs and in due time, we will be thankful. AI will become great tools for the creatives so that scientists, artists, musicians and writers can be even more creative. AI will work with humans as analytical tools that humans can wrap their warmth around for the high-compassion jobs. And we can always differentiate ourselves with the uniquely capable jobs that are both compassionate and creative, using and leveraging our irreplaceable brains and hearts.”

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In general, this is a sound and helpful framing. There’s just one core assumption that warrants closer inspection. Within the mechanistic worldview, we assume jobs that aren’t currently associated with compassion couldn’t ever be. We overlook the possibility that these jobs could actually be infused with compassion and elevated to something meaningful for all involved. The machine story has not recognized this potential and, in fact, has actively prevented it. And even in jobs that seem to me clearly to involve compassion, Lee has apparently not seen it.

Martin Luther King Jr. saw it, though, advising that:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

Certainly, we have to consider economic viability in deciding whether a job should be automated. And if no man or woman is called to be a great street sweeper, then let the sweeping be automated. If a job cannot uplift humanity, then consider it a candidate for artificial intelligence instead. But when our explicit goal is thrivability, then we may also account for the inherent and perhaps infinite value of human craft, creativity and compassion.

In his TED talk, Lee repeats what has become an accepted dictum: on their deathbeds, “nobody regretted that they didn’t work hard enough in this life. They only regretted that they didn’t spend enough time with their loved ones and that they didn’t spread their love.” The implicit message seems to be that work is necessarily the antithesis of those things. But what if we also came to love our colleagues, and what if work became a means of spreading our love?

Assumption #2: Any job that can be automated should be.

Thrivability Lens: Any job that can be enriched with craft, creativity and compassion should be. Any that can’t should be automated.

In the morning and afternoon, my presentations about thrivability generated a wonderful buzz of conversation and energy. But as the day came to a close and people started to think about bringing these perspectives back to their own workplaces, fear started to creep in. “People are uncomfortable with change,” someone said. “I can’t talk about these things at my company,” worried another. We started to explore small, safe things they could do, tiny experiments they could try to bring a little more vitality into their work. And then I stopped. “You know what? Feel the fear and do it anyway,” I implored. “There’s too much at stake to keep doing things the way you’ve always done them. We’re setting our sights on something substantially less than thriving, and as a result, we’re falling disastrously short of thriving. If you’re not going to be bold and aim for thriving, then who is?”

At a macro level, AI and other technologies are helping us interpret vast amounts of complex data to see previously unrecognized trends and projections such as the rates at which the planet is warming, the polar ice cap is melting and the seas are rising. At a micro level, it’s freeing us up from routine tasks so we have time to reflect together on what those big picture trends mean, to ask ourselves what matters most, and to determine what we want and need to do differently. These are the conversations we need to be having.

Assumption #3: AI is a tool to increase profit and productivity. It is a way to make the things we’re already doing more efficient.

Thrivability Lens:  Like any tool, AI needs to be used explicitly and primarily to enable life to thrive, as fully as possible. In the circumstances we face today, any and every tool needs to be applied to the persistence of life on Earth.

If this is not already the nature of your conversations about Artificial Intelligence – and about any aspect of your work – what are you waiting for?


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