For ages in science fiction books, films, and TV programs, we have been wondering if robots would take over the planet. Now there are reports from Facebook, Google, Uber, McDonalds and other companies about how AI will replace us and how anything from 30% to 60% of jobs will be automated by 2030. But while we have been focused on this, we have not realised the changes in our own human capabilities. Maybe the question should also be, ‘Are we becoming human robots?’
The Turing test—developed by Alan Turing in 1950—is now an important way to test artificial intelligence against humans to understand how well robots are able to mimic our behaviour. But some experts are putting forward the case that we need another type of test that tells us to what extent we are becoming like machines. In fact, the changes in technology and the changes in our environment may actually be turning us into human robots.
Technology is taking away our humanness. How many times have you rung a call centre and got an almost robotic response? Soon, you won’t be able to tell whether you are talking to humans or robots. That’s not because the robots are more like humans; it’s because we are more like them. Our processes and need to make things efficient and cheap is taking away what we crave: real human connection. People working at Amazon warehouses have said that they are becoming machines because everything is so automated. ‘We are robots’, they say.
McDonalds is introducing more and more automation with on-screen ordering systems and robotic fryers, but if you go through a drive-through or speak to a server, they may as well be a screen. In fact, screens are usually more efficient, so if you take away the humanness of servers then robots seem more attractive than ever. I was in Melbourne airport a few months ago and everything connected to check-in for a well-known airline was automated. And why not? The process of being checked in by humans is mostly cold and detached, often even rude. The saddest thing at the airport was that when things didn’t work and we eventually found a person to help, they were a human robot: no empathy, connection or warmth.
So, what does it mean to be consciously human?
How are we going to differentiate ourselves from machines? My initial thoughts focus on empathy, which would mean listening with curiosity and genuinely caring, This provides an emotional connection, which means being vulnerable and sometimes irrational. This, of course, is definitely not machine-like. Then there is free will, the ability to think for ourselves and make our own decisions. That is why so much of customer service is now being delivered by human robots; they have to stick to a process, a formula, a service promise, and moments of truth, all of which have stripped them of their humanness.
Outside of the service industry, there is social media and digital marketing all trying to program us. They tell us to ‘click here’ and ‘like this’ and ‘share that’, and we all willingly do it without thinking. But at what cost to our conscious humanness? To top it off, we are probably providing a model for the next generation to do more of the same. Communication is increasing through technology, email, text, and social media. On its own, this isn’t bad, but think about doing it while we are actually face to face with our family, friends, and colleagues. We email customers rather than pick up the phone and actually speak to them, or we give feedback to our team members via email because it’s easier to say something tough when you’re not face to face. Of course it is, because we are vulnerable and more human in person.
So, we need to put as much thought and energy into holding onto conscious humanity as we do into staving off the AI revolution. Then, we can take our place alongside the machines and remain superiorly human.