Can we train dinosaurs to adapt?

On February 12, 2019, I participated as a panelist in the CIO Montreal Summit to discuss how to deal with disruptive technologies and diversity that are changing the workplace. After my panel presentation, one delegate asked me a vital question: How can we teach adaptability to dinosaurs?

“Adaptability” and “dinosaurs” were a recurrent worry in many of the sessions I attended. In this article I share an elaborate version of my answer.

A shorter version of this article was published in The Conversation.


The ancestors of modern birds were the sole survivors of one of the most severe mass extinction events in the history of the world. Today, 10,000 known bird species exist, all of them the descendants of dinosaurs. Polar adaptations, seed-based diets, and even nest designs may have played roles in determining who lived and who died

In the fourth industrial revolution era, enterprises and human workers are equally at risk of becoming extinct. This time, pro-action is of essence and adaptability is the answer.

The AI revolution is here

In 1950, Alan Turing asked whether machines could think and emulate human capabilities. 78 years later, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella confirms in an email to his employees that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will shape the next phase of innovation. 

Indeed, the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution has started. The technology is maturing very rapidly. And, soon, we will enter the post-digital era. The question is no longer whether we use the technologies or not, but rather how to better collaborate with it.

Ambient technologies, such as SiriAlexa or Cortana, are integrating seamlessly in our interactions. We walk into a room and interact with them to turn on the light, play a song, change the room temperature, keep track of a shopping list, book a ride to the airport, or be reminded to take the right medication at the right time.

Xin Xiaomeng is the first female-gendered AI news presenter. Nadia is the first chatbot that can read emotions and assist people living with disabilities. Jill Watson is the first AI teaching assistant. Bina 48 is the first humanoid robot, university student and civil rights activist. 

And this is only the beginning.

Emotion AI works on teaching robots how to feel empathy. Google AI stories are about how AI is helping people solve problems. Experts race to predict how we will be living with AI in the near future. 

In Montréal, experts in AI converge. The Centre hospitalier de l’université de Montréal (CHUM) is pioneering a first French-language school of AI in medicine. Led by topmost world expert in Machine Learning Yoshua Bengio, Mila, the Quebec Institute of Artificial Intelligence, will accelerate the development of artificial intelligence in Quebec.

And, the first World Summit AI Americas will happen in April 2019, to name only few.

More-than-human work

Disruptive technologies are advancing, demographics are shifting, customers are gaining power, and the gig economy and global talent markets are rising. This is shaping the future of work in all fields including educationlearning and developmentcybersecurity,  deliverysportscoachingmanagementmarketing and saleshealthcaremusic and agriculture.

How and where we work is being reinvented.

Every job today is becoming a human+ role. Human+ workers work alongside machines to reach collaborative intelligence. They consolidate their individual knowledge, skills, and experience with a set of tech-driven capabilities to enhance their performance.

On December 3, 2018, during the launching of the International Observatory on the Social Impacts of Artificial Intelligence and Digital Technologies, a voice from the audience urged the 160 researchers and top experts in Québec involved in the project to make sure that no members of our society were left on the bench, whether they were “blank hard drives or ones that needed reformatting”.

Adaptability training

Adapt or die,” is a business mantra, and the adaptability of a workplace’s employees is the key to the future, where many of the tasks cannot be imagined yet.

Leon C. Megginson, a Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University, shares in 1963: According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

The next generation of employees will need to be trained as humans+ before they enter the job market, and the existing workforce will require continuous reskilling and upskilling

Little has been done to reimagine the training and reskilling needed for the future workplace.

This said, similar to creativity (another in-demand soft skill) there is more to adaptability than meets the eye. 

Adaptability is the capacity to adjust to new conditions and to thrive in new environments. 

To adapt is a performance that goes beyond knowledge and skills. It requires more than training and reskilling. It requires an attitudinal change which will only happen if we revise our constructs, consider new perspectives and start to perceive technology as augmenting our own capabilities instead of replacing them.

Human vs. machine

George Kelly’ s Personal Construct Psychology (PCP) explains that individuals use their construct systems to anticipate the future and control it. A personal construct system is the individual’s guide to living. It is the repository of what we learned, a statement of our intents, the values whereby we live and the banner under which we fight. 

We create our constructs based on our interpretation of the world around us in an attempt to anticipate events and control them.

Many associate AI with science fiction stories such as the Terminator franchise or Isaac Asimov’s Robot series, where technology’s prime goal is to control or even exterminate human existence. 

Others are influenced by worldwide experts who relentlessly warn against AI and technological domination. Elon Musk affirmed on several occasions that AI is more dangerous than nuclear weapons and that it can become an immortal dictator. The late Stephen Hawking warned about AI ending mankind despite the fact that AI gave him a better voice. James Barrat actively alerts about the intelligence race, not between big tech titans, but between humans and machines.

Technology has eliminated jobs in the past and will eliminate others in the near future

New jobs will require the current workforce to commit to lifelong learning.

Besides, AI’s ethical problems are yet to be addressed, and establishing an AI code of ethics is complicated. Since its presentation in 2017, 1,130 citizens and 28 organizations have signed the Montréal Declaration for a Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence, a commitment to the socially-responsible development and implementation of AI that serves and benefits society.

We are constantly choosing between the alternatives we set for our constructs. Our decision aims to better help us anticipate and control events. So, when it comes to choosing between believing that AI will serve us and AI will destroy us, many will go for the safest option. Why risk it?

Empathetic evolution

So can dinosaurs adapt?

I say they can, but it will take an empathetic village. 

Human dinosaurs might even metamorphose into agents of change, ready not only to support others during their own adaptation processes, but also to play a pivotal role in shaping the future workplace.

Enterprises that expect their workforce to be ready for the future of work must learn fast.

Learning organizations are organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together. Peter Senge

They must adopt a proactive mindset and support their employees in their quest to belong to the future workplace. Mostly, they need to understand where resistance to change comes from in order to address it.

At the same time, enterprises must draw out their workforces’ human capabilities, that are not context specific, and put them to efficient and effective use. They need to close the digital divide between themselves and their workforces. Most importantly, they need to find ways to keep their people employed. The fear of being replaced can reinforce human dinosaurs’ unwillingness to change.

The team dynamics within the enterprise should function in an empathetic way to facilitate human/human and human/machine collaborations and to support individual members in their adaptation process.

On an individual level, we need to develop our mental and emotional capacity and our knowledge and skills to embrace the human+ identity and attitude. Last, we need to want to adapt, which is rarely the case with human dinosaurs.

Because we desire certainty we tend to certify our constructions as objective representations of the universe, forgetting that we have invented them. Spencer A. McWilliams

Change is possible yet we resist it. A change necessitates a reconstruction of how we view the world and the journey to reach reconstruction is arduous to many.

Stemming from my work on transforming passive bystanders into agents of change, I postulate that learning about oneself and understanding our own behaviours in the future of work context is key to trigger our critical adaptation process and human dinosaurs’.

There is even a chance human dinosaurs metamorphose into leaders of change, ready to support others during their own adaptation processes, and to play a pivotal role in shaping the future workplace.

When we delve into our construct systems, we can examine and address what holds us back. 

Once we identify, analyse and address the core of our resistance to change, we can move to strategies to equip and empower us to deal with uncertainties and actively experiment with new possibilities.

Through experimentation, we can reimagine our collaboration with disruptive technologies and modify how we visualise the future workplace.

Whether we are dinosaurs, or reluctant to adopt the human+ identity, we can start by asking ourselves:

  • How do I explain my position in regard to the premise of the future of work? 
  • How do I explain my reactions to the idea of the future workplace, to the changes that will emerge due to disruptive technologies, and to my colleagues who already embraced the human+ identity and mindset? 
  • Which strategies might I take to explore the human+ identity? 
  • What holds me back from adopting this new identity? 
  • Now that I know, how ready am I to change and to cause change? 

To adapt, training to develop knowledge and skills are necessary but will not be enough. An empathetic and supportive environment and learning about oneself are of utmost importance.

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