If you ever pick up a newspaper (how very 20th century!) or read any online business magazine, you won’t be able to escape the news that – look out! – the robots are coming! Every other news story screams some unthinkably dystopian headline at us:
Britain’s first gunpoint Bitcoin heist
Why bots are the only way to solve capitalism
How an activity tracker is giving away our military secrets
How to invest in the robot uprising (what? That so doesn’t sound like something we’d want to do)
Seriously, just give it a shot yourself: search for the latest tech news and you’ll very quickly have to go and lie in a darkened room (you could even ask Alexa to play you some soothing whale music if you’re feeling particularly stressed). If you do keep up with the latest in tech, we’d forgive you if it seems that we’re reaching some sort of cultural tipping point. As if we’re walking blindly into a soulless future where people will be pushed to the outer edges of workplaces and communities in favour of robot security guards (yep, they’re real), staff-less supermarkets (yep, have you been yet?) and dark factories (because who needs the lights on when it’s only robots doing the work).
And yet, this isn’t a zero-sum game. The gains of the big tech companies are not the inevitable losses of humanity: or at least, not always. There are some heart-warming examples of where tech can do astounding amounts of good – because tech with humanity at its heart is on to a winner.
There’s Fogo Cruzado, a smartphone app that uses crowdsourced data to flag violent incidents in Rio de Janeiro in real time; residents can check their phones as they leave their homes and plan a safer route to work, or find out where the latest incident took place in order to avoid it.
There’s the developing use of nanoparticles in medicine, where the particles are designed to be attracted to certain types of cells, i.e. cancerous cells, so that tumours are degraded, cell by cell, from the inside out. The hope is that advances like these will negate the need for other types of treatment that patients find hard to tolerate, such as chemotherapy.
We can print bones, heart valves and prosthetics. You can wear contact lenses that monitor blood sugar levels and prevent diabetic highs and lows – or you will be able to in the next five years. Companies in the US are developing ‘clean meat’ that’s produced in a lab without a hint of animal cruelty.
Some of these things will have given you a shiver; some of them will have given your heart a little jolt of possibility and wonder. And that seems about right to us. As always with Insights, we want to make sure that people – biological, non-robotic people – are at the heart of everything, and developments such as those above give us heart. In this age of information, the potential for what humans are capable of has shot through the roof and off the charts (and humans invented roofs and charts so we know what we’re talking about). If we let our good intentions guide our choices and behaviours, then we should be able to make the most of what the world of tech can offer.
Sometimes it can feel as if humanity is sleep-walking into a world where machines will replace the things that make us, us. Things like building real and deep relationships, like holding genuine empathy for others in your heart, like listening, life-long learning and speaking truth to power. All of these, and more, are facets of humanity that can’t be replaced by artificial intelligence (even of the ultra-intelligent variety). So if we choose to move forward with humanity at the core of our decisions, we stand a chance of using tech to improve so many things that define our innate human-ness: how we live, how we learn, how we communicate, and so much more.
And at the same time, it’s incumbent upon all of us to keep a weather eye on the advances that are taking place, what impact they might have, and what it all means for humanity. What’s good for humans, and for the earth we’re all standing on, has to be the guiding factor here. We can do so many things. What we should do and whether ‘because we can’ is a good enough reason? Well, that’s still up for grabs.