SXSW: We need to talk about the robots

With automation and robots now part of humanity's inevitable future, we are in a position to come up with answers that have the potential to "make everything great or turn everything to shit".

The Robots are coming.

It’s a fact.

Let’s deal with it. 

Based on what we’ve heard at the world’s largest tech and innovation festival, SXSW, we need to work through some serious questions. 

Are they really going to take our jobs? And if they are, is that really such a bad thing?

Will they turn us all into monosyllabic monsters, talking to people like we talk to Alexa?

Will all of the above happen, and how bad is it really?

After just a few days at SXSW, our brains are buzzing with questions that need answers. Answers that could, as Diana Gonzalez – a strategy director and panellist on Choice Architecture – said: "make everything great or turn everything to shit."

There’s a view held at SXSW that we need to pause. Hit the brakes. Start truly addressing some of the questions that will impact technologies, like AI and the autonomous stuff it will enable, such as self-driving cars.

Two great talks in the festivals’ opening days made it clear that we need to grapple with these issues.  Thankfully, they also addressed what we can start doing today to build towards the potential dangled by what people refer to as the upcoming ‘fourth industrial revolution’.

Let’s start with jobs. In a great opening session, Tim O’Reilly wasted no time in bursting the bubble stating that technology will simply replace humanity.

His talk, ‘Do More. Do Things That Were Previously Impossible’, highlighted the precedents making it unlikely that we’ll simply hand over the keys to AI. His point was robots will help, not take our jobs. O’Reilly cited Amazon as an example, saying that by adding 45,000 robots, Amazon enabled 200,000 more human jobs. 

In his view, technology augments people like Uber arguably improves normal drivers, lending them the ‘knowledge’. This is actually a tricky example, as we all know of the tensions between Uber and traditional taxi drivers, plus Uber’s pay levels. 

O’Reilly further explored this tension by citing economist James Bessen, who said it’s the diffusion of tech that makes all the difference. 

Besson’s point is that it takes 30-40 years to build the know-how to really use tech. Like farmworkers who become became industrial workers – it didn’t happen overnight.

Tensions accepted, O’Reilly suggested we embrace the ‘human colossus’ – a fancy term for our collective consciousness – and move towards it with focus and determination.

‘Humanising Autonomy’ built on these ambitions, but spent more time exploring the real tension in surrendering control to AI. A panel of four field experts led this lively debate, touching on some of the questions raised at the start. Maya Pindeus, CEO of Humanising Technology; Sophie Lamparter, co-founder of DART 17; Liesl Capper-Yearsley, CEO and co-founder at Akin; and Alexander Manowsky, futurist at Daimler AG, tackled the big stuff.

Capper-Yearsley made a great point on empathy, saying we can’t have a dominant relationship with AI. In subjugating AI to a simple machine to instruct, we would dehumanise our personal interactions and debase some integral values. She gave an example here of kids ordering pizza from Domino’s via Alexa – this simple interaction raises issues of cost, diet, family values and also trust in AI.

In humanising autonomy, Capper-Yearsley felt it was vital to leave the honeymoon period of autonomy and discover what’s next. We should anthropomorphise AI, otherwise it could very easily become a ‘black mirror’ for society.

Our interactions with AI will become so frequent and pervasive that we need to make them human and empathetic, as ultimately its everyday frequency will start to influence how we interact with each other. When you think about mobiles, this is quite profound. 

Other highlights from Alexander Mankowsky naturally focused on self-driving cars. Mankowsky again built on the need for empathy, claiming the future of autonomous mobility has to be based on trust, which stems from cooperation and mutual understanding.

The key to autonomous cars is not only the system being able to predict what people will do in the road, but for people to understand what the car is about to do – like indicators on steroids. Again, Mankowsky said the exchange should be empathetic and human as possible – like our relationship with pet dogs. We cooperate well with our pets because we can look at each other and know what we’re likely to do next. This has to be a mutual exchange as that’s the key to trust, which underpins cooperation, which in turn lends more permission to autonomy. 

SXSW has shone a light on some fascinating and relevant perspectives humanising and increasing the automation and autonomy promised by AI. Echoing Tim O’Reilly’s talk, the next revolution won’t kill us, or even really negate jobs. It’ll just change things radically. We may not like it, but we have to embrace it. It’s inevitable. To move with this change, to advance alongside it, we need to keep the focus on three key issues:

  • Exploring new partnerships between man and machine
  • Focusing on augmenting rather than replacing workers
  • Prioritising the humanity in empathy, and cooperating to realise the potential of a world transfused by technology

There’s little doubt that we need to get ahead of the AI opportunity and its autonomous applications. So while we gawp at the potential and transformative future this next revolution will offer, we’d be wise to remember that we need a responsible hand steering the rudder of progress.

Neil Davidson is managing director and partner at HeyHuman