It’s a strange feeling watching the fourth industrial revolution advance before us. Though fascinating to see Boston Dynamics’ latest creations vault effortlessly over moving ramps, it’s a very short step, aided by Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, to imagine being torn to pieces by these godless beasts. More sinister still is footage of Hanson Robotics’ Sophia the Humanoid (granted citizenship to Saudi Arabia) flirting with Piers Morgan on breakfast television. When these robotic achievements go viral is it only me that wonders if this is the beginning of the end for life as we know it? Will we rue the day we shared the video of the dog robot because it was almost cute?
I was initially sceptical about the benefits of our increasing reliance on automated everything. It scares me that we are relinquishing control to creations that almost nobody understands how to work, let alone how to fix if they go rogue. Surely we’ve learnt our lessons from automated checkouts and motion-sensor light switches? I know enough to know that algorithms are not my friends. And when the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk vocalise real fear about a future reliant on AI, I’m inclined to take their word for it. Bar the odd boon of no longer having to vacuum or cut grass, I’ve tended to assume that we are all doomed. Give me a lobotomy over neural lacing, please.
Recently though, I saw a video online of the da Vinci Surgical System robot peeling a grape and meticulously sewing the skin back on again, and I wondered if our automated future might not be so bad after all. It’s not that I hate grape skin or that I don’t trust surgeons to do an excellent job, but the speed and precision were mind-blowing. Here is a job that perhaps should have always been done by machine, rather than hand. How un-human does a surgeon have to learn to be just to cope with the enormity of a life or death situation requiring them to keep a steady mind and hand. How long does that training take and, tragically, how often does it go wrong and how horrifying are the consequences for all involved?
Today, the conversation surrounding our automated future tends to be optimistic, and it is more interesting as a result. In place of “they’ll take our jobs (and maybe our lives)” there are countless reports detailing our need to play to our natural human strengths with an underlying message that we are being liberated. AI is a tool or partner to enhance our humanity, not replace it. We may no longer have to force ourselves to learn systems to then spend our working lives operating them. In short, we don’t have to behave like machines because we will soon have machines that can do it better, who won’t spread norovirus or take two-hour lunch breaks.
From the World Economic Forum to Boston Consulting to GoogleX, we are being instructed that a happy co-existence with AI requires us to shore up our natural human talents, of which adaption for survival is one of our greatest. Creative problem solving and lateral thinking are high on every list of most employable skills in the future. Emotional intelligence, empathy and charisma are replacing corporate jargon in HR handbooks. We are increasingly prized for our proclivity to make mistakes so long as we learn from them and talk about it. Our ability to be messy, spirited and courageous individuals is being celebrated in place of bland, unquestioning homogeneity. Far from switching ourselves to autopilot and letting the robots do the work, the gist is that we need to re-engage with our human nature; it is time to turn the tide on the previous two revolutions that sought to turn us into machines.
“People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think,” wrote Aldous Huxley – a statement often pedaled out as a portent to the fourth industrial revolution. In truth it should be a rallying cry to us today, addicted as we are to the ultimate tool of the third industrial revolution: our smartphones. The missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of progress between the age of the internet and the age of AI is learning how to master our personal relationship with technology. When we are told to enhance our own humanity and learn how to behave creatively, I wonder if we are really being told to put down our phones and learn to think for ourselves again. When even Apple, Facebook and Google recognize the need for us to be more disciplined with our smartphone usage, then clearly there’s a problem. Instead of Huxley, perhaps we should be focusing on Einstein’s message instead: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind its faithful servant; we have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”