According to Cassie Kozyrkov, Chief Decision Scientist from Google, “You already know what thinking is, so let me introduce its cousin: ‘thunking.’ Yes, it’s exactly that dull sound you’d hear if you tried to open a door by using your head… as a battering ram! Thunk, thunk, thunk.
There are some tasks that require creativity, ingenuity, sparks of brilliance, cognitive engagement… the best of us as humans. And other tasks that don’t.
Thunking refers to tasks that are repetitive, predictable, and don’t require a high level of cognitive engagement, creativity, or critical thinking. These are the tasks that you can do almost on autopilot once you’ve figured out what needs to be done.
No matter how fancy-sounding your job title is, you almost surely spend at least some — if not most — of your day thunking. It’s the data entry, the scheduling, the responding to frequently asked questions in the same way for the millionth time.
And guess what? That’s exactly what AI is poised to automate. Thunking is on the chopping block. AI is well-suited to taking the routine, repetitive, mindless tasks off your plate… so if your job involves a lot of thunking, then yes, expect parts of it to be automated by AI in the near future.
But here’s the crucial part: AI does not automate thinking. Tasks that require creativity, problem-solving, true social interaction, and deep cognitive engagement are still firmly in the human domain. So, while AI can help with the thunking, it’s up to us humans to do the thinking.
Often, when we are thunking, we’re distracted from opportunities to think to solve the world’s most important problems. Anyone who says there’ll be nothing left to do after AI, after automation, after the productivity revolution, hasn’t seen just much sub optimality there is in the world. As long as we have medicines left undiscovered, diseases uncured, inefficiencies in infrastructure, waste of our precious resources, as long as we have climate problems, as long as we have a future to invent, art to make, creativity to unleash… there is plenty to think about and plenty to do.
The trouble is that we have traditionally relied so desperately on thunking as a way to measure worth and as a way to steer the course that we haven’t come to terms with what happens when it’s gone. What I worry about most is that decision-makers and managers are so used to measuring and optimizing the thunking piece (it’s easiest to measure, after all) that they might not adjust quickly enough to lead in a world where it no longer makes sense to fill the spaces between thinking with boring repetition. A misguided view of productivity could mean lost jobs for workers without whom organizations won’t be able to thrive in the long run – what a painful mistake for everyone.”