Interaction humans and machines

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Interaction humans and machines

Technology can speak, it can act autonomously, and we are growing closer to it all the time. But is this new relationship between human and machine a blessing or a curse? There’s no one clear answer to that question. What we do with the opportunities posed by this new, smart world is entirely up to us.

HAL 9000, the onboard computer of the spaceship Discovery in Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is not exactly a compelling candidate for a successful relationship between humans and machines. HAL, as the computer is lovingly known by the crew, is certainly intelligent, accurate, self-possessed, omnipotent and emotional, but it is also deadly. HAL’s artificial intelligence was meant to guarantee the voyagers’ safe passage to Jupiter. But the system begins to act out in its own self-interest, and when the crew attempts to shut it down, HAL nearly kills them all in order to save itself. This film, considered by many critics as the best science fiction film of all time, was released exactly 50 years ago, and the once futuristic date of 2001 is now 17 years in the past. The future is history and very little of what the film predicted actually came to pass. At least there aren’t any computers with artificial intelligence looking to exact their bloody revenge on our civilization. Kubrick’s film was instrumental in ensuring that advancements in robotics, artificial intelligence, and digitalization have been met with both enthusiasm and skepticism. These attitudes have extended to developments such as job automation, autonomous vehicles, and the use of robotic caregivers. And the question remains: What role should machines play in our lives?

In flux

The fact is, our lives are digitalized more and more each day. The ways in which we consume, work and communicate are changing rapidly, often at dizzying speeds. “A new world is emerging right before our eyes. And today nobody knows what kind of world it’s going to be,” writes philosopher and author Thomas Vašek in his book ‘Digital Human.’ “We are too consumed in this flux to be able to comprehend its full range of implications.” We simultaneously swoon about the potential of artificial intelligence and fear the tyrannical algorithms that reduce humans to data sets. The digital revolution represents both the gateway to new avenues of freedom and creativity as well as the loss of jobs and the supremacy of online companies that control our communication and information. The digital world can be almost anything. That’s what makes it so revolutionary, fascinating, successful – and frightening. And humans are in the middle of it all, evaluating and guiding the changes the digital era brings with it. However, all of the initial euphoria surrounding these innovative applications, business ideas and new opportunities is finally surrendering to the old political and social notion that technical progress is no end in itself. And even when it comes to digitalization, we need to remember that technology is there to serve humanity and not the other way around.

Digitalization as a job killer?

Humans are already completely shut out of some digital processes. Fully-automated algorithms trade billions of dollars on the stock market within the space of milliseconds. Logistical computers control the transportation of goods around the world and robots are more efficient and precise than humans in the field of manufacturing. When programs control programs, humans become superfluous, and that fuels anxiety about the future. However, the number of jobs actually lost to digitalization is still a matter of some debate. An Oxford University study estimates that automated processes in the United States could eliminate 47 percent of all jobs by 2030, primarily in the fields of finance, administration, logistics, shipping and production. According to the technology trade association BITKOM, Germany will lose around 3.4 million jobs to robots and algorithms over the next five years. That number could rise to 18 million jobs by 2030 – that’s nearly half of all jobs. But there is also a positive vision of digitalization that is not based on economic fears. “Automation and digitalization do not inevitably lead to a loss of jobs,” says Marion Weissenberger-Eibl, innovation researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. In a study of 3,300 European companies, Weissenberger-Eibl demonstrated that companies with robotics systems invest just as much in their staff. By increasing efficiency and productivity, they become more competitive and draw additional investment, which leads to more jobs in the end. In addition, in countries such as the United States, Japan and Germany, the shortage of specialist personnel and current trend in demographic change seem to contradict the assertion that digitalization eliminates jobs. The key to ensuring that Society 4.0 is as inclusive as possible is education. Lifelong learning will become the new norm, enabling people to stay up-to-date with technological developments and remain in step with a flexible, constantly shifting job market.

Humanity is reinventing itself

Even highly-educated specialists and academics will see their jobs done faster and better by intelligent computer programs. But as long as humanity embraces its natural strengths, there will be nothing to fear. There are many things that technology can do just as well as or even better than humans, but technology has its limits, too. What makes humanity unique, and what separates humans from machines? If machines relieve humans of the duty to perform standardized work, there will be more time to concentrate on complex, individual and creative tasks. “In spite of all the advancements in artificial intelligence and self-learning machines, humans still corner the market when it comes to creativity and social interaction. These will be some of the most important skills needed for jobs in the digital age,” says Marion Weissenberger-Eibl. Digitalization gives us the opportunity to emphasize the things that make people special: intuition, empathy, experience, and the ability to react to unexpected situations in creative ways. The future of work will focus on education, care professions, research and development, and art and culture. By targeting these types of tasks, we can improve quality of life and innovation in our society.

Then, all the difficult, monotonous and dangerous work could be taken over by mindless machines. It would be so simple. On the other hand, machines are also developing into intelligent partners with whom we interact as equals, whether or not they have a human face. The success of voice and gesture controlled systems such as Amazon Echo and Google Assistant show how human our interactions with smart technology have already become. The way we connect to the Internet by saying “Alexa!” or “Hey, Google!” is a new stage in the evolution of the relationship between humans and machines. After all, language and gestures bring emotions into play, too. “We are quick to establish an emotional bond with robots when they seem lifelike, or when we interact with them physically. We give them names, and assign them a gender. Clearly, that’s irrational, but it’s now become a part of our nature,” says robot ethicist Kate Darling from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Kate Darling is critical of this trend. “These data storing machines in our households and pockets are clever enough to manipulate our behavior and our opinions. And companies are able to exploit our emotional dependence on these products.” Sure, surveillance cameras, smoke detectors and alarm systems help to control your home by monitoring the temperature and protecting you from theft, but they are also collecting masses of intimate, private data. Kate Darling encourages consumers to be responsible about the way they interact with technology, but she also proposes that legal limits be set on smart robots and their human manufacturers, particularly when it comes to data security. Now is the time to decide how we will shape digitalization to help benefit humanity. Thanks to the premiere of the HAL 9000 50 years ago, we already know what to avoid.

Picture credits: North News & Pictures

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