“How will you feel if your refrigerator gave you an emotional hug?”
Marc Teyssier, a French researcher is working on a technology that provides a robotic finger to the mobile phone that can evoke the sense of touch during a call. A pat, caress, hug, or a touch to comfort…can be extended over a mobile call enabled by the robotic finger, patented as ‘MobiLimb’. How cool is this technology?
Similarly, what’s your feeling when the garbage-can calls up or sends a reminder message on your phone that it needs to be emptied out! Are you already wondering about the ‘can’ of technology or simply wish to trash it?
Scientists working on such technologies believe that whatever the human mind can think, technology will do them in future! Is that the future now?
These are all real developments happening around us and they will be available for trial and commercial uses in the near future. Much of the new things happening are in the areas of Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and IoT (Internet of Things), which can do the chores as well as the challenging tasks, efficaciously. Further, these technologies can learn and update themselves of the developments around, can be trained on the nuances, and understand and interact coherently with human beings. These technologies can be for industrial, environmental, and personal use and healthcare, fintech, agriculture, and education are at the forefront of adopting such technologies.
The collective human knowledge injected into a robot makes it a powerful object. A robot can ‘think’ as well as ‘do’ any task assigned to it better than human beings. It is presumed that thinking robots are also obedient and therefore will never step out of line. The opposite is the narrative about human beings, which is a reason why repetitive jobs will be assigned to technologies in future; a fear about job losses has therefore set in.
Technology is meant for convenience and not for the replacement of human beings; it should be developed and used in a manner that augments and enriches human beings and not
Creators of technologies believe that technology should never be curbed. Technology injects life even into the lifeless, and is therefore very ‘humane’. It is the creative spirit of the technologists like those of artistes, poets and writers, who have the creative license to express themselves that allows technologists to ‘create’ new things to help the human race to progress. The freedom to create things that can alter the way we are living and experiencing life is the purpose of technology – it takes away the problems, miseries, and drudgery of the mundane, and makes life simpler, easier, and comfortable to live. But, does this actually happen? With our collective experience and knowledge of over 100 years since the industrial revolution, is there empirical data validating the thoughts of the technologists?
There’s another view that is equally strong and valid and its premise is that technology is meant for convenience and not for the replacement of human beings. Therefore, technology should be developed and used in a manner that augments and enriches human beings and not displace them. How pragmatic is this thinking?
Social Media technology digitally connected people and was considered to be one of the best technologies for human beings. Discovering old friends and making new ones, connecting with family and relatives and bonding with them once again were the virtues of social media. The most significant impact was in the formation of ‘active groups’ that intended to serve a cause. There are plenty of positive examples of social media like connecting the grandparents with their grandchildren, which many feared was waning on account of physical displacements and disintegrating family structures. People in need of support during emergencies could easily get help from those they had never met before, thanks to the social connects. Similarly, AI is helping detect skin cancer far before it can be detected by doctors, enabling early treatment. Robotic technology is enabling warehouse management by intelligently and accurately picking and stacking up items for each customer order. Virtual Reality is enabling education by creating digital classrooms that provide a better learning experience to all age groups. IoT is enabling service engineers to diagnose problems remotely and provide solutions more accurately, much faster than before.
When the technologies get used at individual levels, for need or convenience, the impact and perceptions become quite different. In case of the robotic finger being used with the mobile phone, the feedback was ‘creepy’ – that’s how people felt about this technology. Does the dustbin really need to communicate with human beings to let them know when it needs to be emptied? Does it help an individual to know what is her blood pressure or sugar level on an hourly basis through the use of a gadget? Will a child get better education without human interaction or supervision? Are autonomous cars the need of the hour? There are many questions that arise when we look at applying technology. In fact, the examples and events occurring don’t augur well for such applications. Like, analyzing social media profiles to bombard targeted messages that are curated to appear realistic wasn’t a great application of analytics, AI, and Virtual Reality. Using AI to study the gene patterns and then altering them so as to influence the characteristics of a new-born seems ominous. Addicting children to gadgets by providing games that are very ‘sticky’ (Blue Whale, Go, etc.), thus robbing them of their social skills and all-round development, are just bad examples of use of technology. Are we letting technologies impact our common sense?
Clearly, there’s a need to draw a line that separates the benefits and the potential harms of technology in the short or long terms. Enthusiastic software engineers developing technologies on machine learning language must realize that the machines that use such software will take away such development jobs in future. This is akin to cutting the branch on which one is sitting! Likewise with the autonomous cars – the disruption it can cause outweighs the benefits it can bring in.
In the industrial revolution era, we missed out on identifying the ill-effects of large-scale automation. Much later we discovered the problems of pollution, global warming, and general decay of the environment. Although industrial revolution helped the human race make great progress, its side effects were not seen early and hence, as a world, we are creating initiatives in green revolution, putting laws around pollutants, creating awareness amongst people so that the society acts in a responsible manner. Industries benefitted from the industrial revolution but the environment took a beating.
With industrialization and awareness, the world is now engaged in curbing carbon emission, introducing statutes on tobacco, liquor, drug consumption, and making people aware of activities that are in the wrong side of law. There needs to be a similar initiative for technology too, like ‘Responsible Technology’. It is well understood that technologies will disrupt jobs, opportunities, outlooks, behaviors etc. and if these changes happen gradually, coping mechanisms to deal with the impacts can be worked out. But if such changes happen too fast and there are too many of them, then the society will simply disintegrate. If millions of people across the globe suddenly lose their jobs to technologies, no country will be able to deal with the unemployment situation. While automation will benefit industries, businesses need to act in a responsible manner so that the effects of technology are gradually absorbed by those who are affected. Similarly, technology allows creation and manipulation of information which have the potential to impact beliefs, values, customs and traditions of a society. In such cases, creation and manipulation need to be monitored and governed by a central authority.
Responsible technology starts with the creators indicating the intended good and anticipated ill-effects of their proposed technologies, in terms of their usage and experience. A global body needs to assess and advise on how such technologies will be permitted to function by introducing caveats that are legally and socially supported. For instance, if smoking is banned in public places because it is hazardous to others, can the use of mobile phones while walking on the roads also be banned? Can the screen of a mobile phone not freeze when the user is walking? Such a technology would be amazingly useful! Can technology be used to stop manual scavenging, an occupation that is legally banned but is still practiced rampantly in India? It will do good to the society even though it robs the scavengers of their daily earnings – a case also for applying common sense over cold logic.
Forthcoming technologies that influence human minds must be allowed only if they are beneficial to the larger society, and not a select few. The business approach of customer segmentation, which allows businesses to discriminate offerings and services between the creamy layer and those at bottom of the pyramid cannot become the norm for use of technology for social needs. Technologies must be allowed only to the extent of their positive impact to the society. Frameworks for regulating and verifying content on social platforms or enabling human decisions to prevail over actions suggested by technologies (in case of healthcare – trust the doctor), and a belief that technologies are not meant to command over human beings, must happen soon. Else, not only will the jobs be taken away by these technologies but the term ‘progress’ will mean its exact opposite for human beings!
(Views expressed are personal)