The benefits of play in a technology-driven world

Editor’s note: Ben Jenkins is the co-founder of Sympler.

Yuval Noah Harari made this show-stopping declaration on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert about AI: “Every generation in history invents a technology that they believe will change the world beyond recognition. The difference is that this time they’re right.”  

Whether you hear this with excitement or abject fear, most of us do feel that there is something very different about this technology and the changes to come will touch us profoundly. Much of the current debate is around humans vs. machines: Will it outsmart us? Should we encode circuit breakers to overrule it when it gets too strong? What will be the role of humans when AI grows in power? 

I believe the answer to many of these questions lies in looking backward, not forward. Rather than seeing the future as a binary fight between humans and machines, we should be talking about the interplay between humans and machines. And most importantly about how to tap into the complementary skills that they both bring. As with any change in group dynamics, our instinct should not be to beat the machine but instead focus on how we can work with it. Human and AI working together.

This shift starts by understanding who we are and what our unique skills are. I’m no neuroscientist but I believe we all have a rudimentary grasp of how humans and machines differ in terms of how they collect, recall and make meaning from information. The human process involves emotional pathways, and different levels of information are stored according to how, where and when they were encountered. They’re imbued with a hierarchy thanks to our feelings which evolved to promote emotionally resonant lessons and deprioritize less life-threatening data. Humans have wonderfully economic data management processes that store traumas or great epiphanies in the body or the subconscious. 

While machines store everything in the same way, they don’t rely on emotion to retrieve or connect knowledge like we do. While highly energy intensive, this sounds much better in terms of objectivity, but it also means that the connection between knowledge and the formation of ideas isn’t the same. Humans take less direct paths in their retrieval of information and do so more playfully and creatively. We play to encode information (learning through play) and play again to unlock it from the recesses of our minds. This often requires being in a relaxed, receptive state of mind to make the deepest connections. Machines don’t need to do this, but they also don’t produce such unusual expressions from the data. Instead, they’re better at large, data-fueled pattern recognition, logic and serving up highly objective facts. 

This is important because, in any good group dynamic, we play to our skills. The best teams know how to tap into their members’ strengths and steer away from their weaknesses and blind spots. So, if we’re to carry this speculation forward, the roles of humans and machines would seem clear, right? Humans will bring their instinct, empathy, instinct for play and creativity, while the robots will bring the left brain thinking and more methodical, linear processes. 

Well, maybe... 

Before we assemble our cyborg dream team we need to take another look at humans because, while two centuries of systems thinking brought us to this moment where we have near-thinking machines, it has also produced side effects in us humans. Namely, we’ve become a little too like the offspring we’re about to birth. 

Did humans forget how to play? 

What started in the Industrial Revolution was a slow devolution from our instinctive skills to the harnessing of humans in a more efficient, standardized machine-like system. This fueled capitalism, globalization and the physical and technical infrastructure that we benefit from today and it served a great purpose. But there evolved a new kind of human that was alienated from many of her innate human traits – including her play instinct.  

Consider the employees of the first railways who moved from waking with the birds and nurturing livestock on the farm to systematically consulting their newly issued timepieces to enable the proper functioning of trains. Or the meteorologists who meticulously logged readings from Stevenson screens and painstakingly noted them to build a true picture of the weather. Or lab technicians laboring over test tubes for years on end just to chart minute increments. Without imposing a more rational and objective approach on these workers, the whole system would fall apart, and science, technology and progress would stall. 

It wasn't just science that organized humans into efficient systems. We can see it in almost every discipline to enjoy economies of scale. Be it the conformity of airline staff, the dogma of the corporate brand book or the inflexibility of the HR systems in large corporations; we’ve all encountered the “robotization” of the workforce at one time or another. So, it’s no surprise that two centuries of sculpting humans into precision-measuring, auto-responding, hyper-selling machines have rather blunted our edge over the real robots! 

How play can encourage creativity  

Before we prepare for our robot overlords, we need to first vanquish our self-made zombie apocalypse and I firmly believe our greatest weapon in that fight is play. Play has the instantaneous effect of banishing one's inner robot. Have you ever tried being serious while with your most ridiculous, childlike friends? Even when social, play is still personal and unique, so it’s hard to standardize it. And it is powerfully emotional. When it is allowed in, it takes on a life of its own and infects all those in its vicinity who still have the capacity for it. 

And there are still many of us with a capacity for it. After the apocalyptic start to the 2020s – characterized by plague, climate chaos and conflict, 2024 is being viewed as a year to breathe, reflect and slow down. While we can’t be certain about the future, the historian (and optimist) in me says that intense periods of seriousness are often followed by periods of play. Look at the 1920s. After an earth-scaring conflict and pandemic, the world needed to let its hair down, break some rules and just play. So it was out with the starch, the class structure and the adulting and in with absurdism, rule-breaking and flappers. 

Humans need mindless play to open their neural pathways to new ideas. So, while it may sound frivolous, we seriously need to reconnect with our urge to play – right now more than ever. By deactivating our long-conditioned robot brain and firing up our childlike, curious, naive, wanderlust-ing, play instincts we will rediscover a true superpower. One that will reconnect us with our emotions, intuition and creativity. Now that AI has targeted left-brain jobs, we are liberated – even duty-bound – to settle back into our right brains and play with gusto.