Robot apocalypse or return of humanity? There is still time to choose

We have a deep-rooted and oft-expressed fear of machines that is coming to the fore again in ethical debates about the development and application of artificial intelligence. Hence the recent concern expressed by leaders in the field of AI (or ‘synthetic comprehension’ as some are now calling it – an attempt at a friendlier rebrand perhaps?), including Demis Hassabis, head of Google’s DeepMind AI project.

One focus of Hassabis and others’ fears is LAWS, or Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. That’s robot soldiers to us ordinary folks. Yes, you’re right to be scared; as an open letter signed by over 1,000 scientists, academics and researchers to the Joint International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires last July pointed out, robot soldiers are ideal for “assassinations, destabilising nations, subduing populations and selectively killing a particular ethnic group”. Charming, as we say in the suburbs.

Another fear that is getting a lot of media attention now is the advance of automation in occupations that were not long ago seen as entirely immune from it. The BBC has published a handy calculator to tell you how likely it is that your job will be automated in the next twenty years or so.

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times

Chaplin’s classic Modern Times is currently showing on Sky Arts. Source:

It seems that the march of the machine is unstoppable. Automation involving ‘advanced and simplified’ robots (i.e. advanced to design and build, simple to install and operate) is already prevelant in manufacturing and R and D, and is now spreading to more knowledge-based tasks. Highly skilled roles in engineering, oil exploration, aerospace and medical diagnosis and treatment are all under threat, we’re told, from robots.

These waves of high-tech, shiny plastic and metal workers may or may not materialise, but the fact is that we are, and must remain, way ahead of any robot when it comes to emotional intelligence and social interaction – the high-touch skills.

Work that stems from quintessentially human attributes such as discovering meaning, showing compassion, being creative and assuming responsibility for ourselves and for others will not easily become robotic. We feel emotions such as love, joy, gratitude, hurt, and sorrow. We can speculate, inventing entirely new scenarios based on complex social and environmental factors. We’re alive, and we know it, and we’re nowhere near being able to reproduce such meta-cognition in a software programme. We also have subconscious minds and, as yet, we haven’t an inkling of how to reproduce subconscious processes artificially.

Assuming we don’t all get killed by crazed LAWS that were ostensibly unleashed to ‘protect’ us, there is room for hope. We can count on our emotional intelligence, social skills, moral imperatives, and need for meaning to give us the edge over robots for a long time yet. In a future driven more by our common humanity than by our ability to invent ways of destroying it, employers will be automating tasks wherever possible. Not to reduce the number of employees they have, but to ensure that these employees are making the maximum possible use of the human skills that can, most probably, never be automated. This might mean a revolution in our perception of roles that are not highly valued today. Could it be that professions at the low end of the status pyramid such as nursing, teaching, social work, and assistive care will become high status, high pay occupations because they tick all the high-touch emotional, cognitive, moral, and social boxes?

Creative talent will also be in great demand. People skilled in complex, abstract thinking and with an ability to innovate will prosper. Artists, musicians, and writers will be able to exploit the originality and unpredictability of their trades. There is already an ever-growing demand for their content to fill the plethora of digital platforms.

Even a robot enthusiast like entrepreneur, inventor, and sometime White House advisor Ben May predicts a useful role for humans. In Jobocalypse: The end of human jobs and how robots will replace them, he writes: “If I was a career advisor, I would be advising the children of the future to be as unique and free-thinking as they can be.”

Richard Samson, Director of the EraNova Institute, agrees, and enumerates other ways we can leverage our “highly human skills”. He writes: “Organizations will thrive by enhancing and building on their creativity, concern for customers, determination, a sense of mission, and the common bond of shared effort – magical, intangible qualities that add value beyond mechanical efficiency or even bottom-line economics.”

In other words, the good old ‘soft’ skills. It just seems an all-too human pity that it might take the horrific consequences of an AI arms race to remind us that we are all-too human.

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