The World Economic Forum in Davos is one of the global events worth paying attention to. The crème de la crème of the world’s economic and political power unite in the Swiss city to tell the world their vision of the world. Or at least the vision they want the world to know. Among kings, politicians, businessmen, presidents of countries, even the pope himself, the days follow one another under a heavy snowfall that gives it a magical touch, although sometimes the reality of certain data puts the magic in the background. 67% of CEOs believe that technology, not humanity, is the key to the future of their companies. A fact that highlights the widespread confusion that inhabits the vision of the future of many of those who pull the strings of today’s world. I say many, but not all.
Of the many interviews, one that stood out was with Jack Ma, CEO of corporate giant Alibaba. He talked about many things, including free trade, “don’t use trade as a weapon,” he asked. But what caught my attention the most was when he said that “it’s time to change the way we teach. It doesn’t make sense to teach skills that machines have. There are “soft skills” that humans will always have but machines cannot have. It’s those skills that we need to teach.” It is absolutely telling that Jack Ma has his eye on education. And not only does he get it right, but he reveals part of the challenges we face in this era of change, and puts the focus on the person, not just the machine.
In an interview in the Diario de Avisos in April last year, I responded to a question along these lines: “For me, everything begins and ends with education. Nowadays it’s not so much a question of children learning to design robots, but of learning not to look like them. We are constantly talking about the importance of coding, programming, that children know about software, and what you wonder is what happens with social skills, where is critical thinking or the ability to doubt things. Today education is facing that big dilemma.”
Returning to Switzerland, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, believes that we will soon be living through a new phase as human beings that will be built around “cyber-physical systems” with the blurring of physical, digital and biological systems. The famous singularity, in which man and machine are indivisible, is just around the corner. Schwab thus adds to Ray Kurzweil’s already conceived predictions, in which he predicts that “there will be no difference between machines and humans”.
Everything new, especially if it transforms life in such a revolutionary way, opens up endless questions, doubts, uncertainties, opportunities and challenges. This utopia, so real, is being overtaken in the queue of more circumstantial concerns, areas such as the machine occupying your job, the robot occupying a place in your marriage bed, an algorithm changing the course of an election, and so many others.
In addition to the issues raised, which at first sight seem so far away, there are the ethical implications, especially those that are beginning to emerge as the most important at present. How do the algorithms behind Google, Twitter and Facebook influence everything, from our emotions to our choices? In fact, Facebook itself acknowledged that “the widespread use of social networks can be harmful to democracy“, extending the responsibility to others as well. It was Katie Harbath, Facebook’s head of global policy who communicated that “we are now more willing than ever to combat negative influences and ensure that our platform is an unquestionable source for democratic well-being“. It’s never too late, although sometimes it’s later than others.
We said that the implications range from the immediate to the medium and long term. What will happen if self-driving vehicles eliminate the jobs of truck drivers, cab drivers, delivery drivers, logistics, postal workers, and airplane and helicopter pilots? When the 1.8 million truck driving jobs (in the U.S. alone) are automated, we will need to find a way to retrain those people, but in the short term the priority will be to help them put food on the table.
It was within the scope of the opening of this 2018 edition of the World Economic Forum in Davos that even Pope Francis himself, urged “that robots must contribute to the service of humanity. Only by understanding the dimension of this reality will we be able to address the challenges that it proposes to us.”
In the same area of robots, the European Union is currently considering the need to redefine the legal status of robots, with a draft report suggesting that autonomous bots could, in the future, be given the status of “electronic persons“, a legal definition that confers certain rights and obligations. This we are seeing happen sounds like science fiction, and it is initially striking that we are so concerned about robot rights over other more pressing priorities, when any engineer today would say that we are a long way from seeing robot marches for civil rights.
Will we see robots marching for their rights? Will there be robot unions?
For me the most advanced country in this area is not the United States, but South Korea. The South Korean government is preparing to publish a code of ethics to prevent abuses from humans to robots and vice versa. “The government will establish a set of ethical principles concerning the role and functions currently performed by robots, bearing in mind that in the future they will gradually take on tasks involving greater intelligence,” explained the Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy. Incidentally, every Korean household will have a robot to facilitate daily chores by 2020.
(One of the things I would like to emphasize is that in no way do I see robots as a confrontation with human beings; on the contrary, I see the human-robot relationship as complementary, not supplementary).
Machines are better than man in calculations, data processing, mathematical analysis, but in everything else they are not yet and are far from being so. The most evolved robots are no more than the equivalent of a kindergarten child. Artificial intelligence is like a child, a blank sheet of paper on which basic values can be inscribed and which, in time, it will be able to apply in unforeseen scenarios. Humans gain an intuitive sense of what is ethically acceptable by observing how others behave (though with the danger that we can learn bad behavior when presented with the wrong role models). Parents don’t let their children go down a path from minute zero, they introduce them to traffic slowly. It’s the same with AI. Although no one wants to wait the time it takes to train a child, to educate them, to teach them to apply it to machines.
About the European Union, there is more, currently there is a debate on the new laws that are intended to be amortized in Europe at the request of the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament and it seems necessary to regulate the identification of robots so that people know that they are in contact with them. At some point we are seeing how other countries create, design, develop and market robots and we focus more on the standard than on the creative.
On the other hand, legislation in general is almost a decade behind in relation to all the advances in these matters. In the first place, until there are no “robot-humans“, I do not see the need to create a robot identifier. Today a robot is clearly seen and identified in this part of the world. Some might Harmony, the first sex doll with artificial intelligence, as an exception. The price of the new intelligent sex doll, with feelings and capable of reaching orgasm exceeds $8,000. Others might mention Gabriel, the first erotic doll for women. English sexologist Karley Sciortino highly recommends it, she has tried it and loved it: “It’s almost creepy: it’s absolutely ‘indistinguishable’ from a real person. You are in complete control. With a doll you can learn how to make sex work for you, try speeds and angles. It can help you understand your body, and that’s something that empowers a woman.”
These exceptions stand out among the vast majority of robots that are still quite gaudy, good looking to each other, and very recognizable. Perhaps in the future when man-machine fusion will be reflected in robots in human bodies, or perhaps as is more assiduously commented, the opposite, humans in machine bodies. If the heartbeat of science fiction movies or series anticipate what is to come, Westworld and Altered Carbon are clear, close and tangible examples of this union between the biological and the machine.
Another interesting, disturbing and relevant area is the emotional.
Does someone who wants to fall in love need to know whether they are falling in love with a person or an operating system, or do they simply want to fall in love? What is the ethical framework for machines? Should they pay social security and personal income tax? Should they have rights? What are their obligations? Will marriage between man and machine be allowed? Will robots be allowed to teach in schools? Should gene modification be legal to manipulate the human race and create “designer babies”? What if a prenatal test predicts that your child will have a below average IQ of 90 points unless you make a small modification? What if only rich people can use these technologies?
We are already facing these dilemmas. As we enter the new digital age, do we need a new set of global codified standards? Can this fast-moving world agree on these issues?
As the world tries to absorb so many advances, education always falls down the list of priorities. At least, every now and then, some people like Jack Ma bring it back into the headlines.
In this digital age, it is important to reinstate the value of children’s innate ability to create, to imagine, their capacity to ask questions, their curiosity, their authenticity. Schools believe that by teaching computer science, coding and tablets, children are already in the digital age. They are not. Children must learn that technology is a means, not an end. They must be prepared for a world they are heading towards that does not exist. Technology in this future will not be the differential factor, but their social skills, their creativity, their empathy and above all the use of the most powerful machine we know today: the human brain.
On the other hand, we wonder if education in technology, both creation and responsible use, allows us to form a critical and participatory citizenship? Albert Einstein lamented when he saw the use that was being made of his discoveries. If instead of the atomic bomb they had created the love bomb, the world would not be in a state of permanent war but building a peaceful, harmonious, collaborative planet that values diversity. Teaching from an early age to differentiate between good and evil, between what is responsible and what is not, or simply between what makes sense and what does not, is almost more important than education in technology. Before understanding technology, they have to understand people. Aspects such as philosophy, psychology, sociology and anthropology should be part of the combo of immersion into the exciting world of technological progress.
In order to form a critical and participative citizenry, we will need many things to change, not only in technology, but also in educational plans, teachers, parents and the culture and mentality of our society in general.
Access to knowledge is the basis for equal opportunities. What role will technology literacy play in our future? Is knowledge of technology more important than knowledge of medicine or ecology or engineering? Our society made a leap towards technology without having gone through the necessary steps to be better prepared for this era.
What is coming depends more on us as humanity than on robots.
“Faced with the many barriers of injustice, loneliness, mistrust and suspicion in our day, the world of work is called upon to take courageous steps to make ‘being and working together’ not simply a slogan but a program for the present and the future” (Ibid.). Only through a firm resolve shared by all economic actors can we give a new direction to the destiny of our world. Artificial intelligence, robotics and other technological innovations must also be employed in such a way that they contribute to the service of humanity and the protection of our world, and not the opposite, as unfortunately some estimates predict.
We cannot remain silent in the face of the suffering of millions of people, nor can we continue to move forward as if the spread of poverty and injustice had no cause. It is a moral imperative, a responsibility that involves everyone, to create the right conditions to enable all people to live in dignity. By rejecting a “throwaway” culture and a mentality of indifference, the entrepreneurial world has enormous potential to bring about substantial change by increasing the quality of productivity, creating new jobs, respecting labor laws, fighting public and private corruption, and promoting social justice, along with the fair and equitable sharing of profits.
There is a great responsibility to exercise wise discernment, since the decisions made today will be decisive in shaping the world of tomorrow and that of future generations. Therefore, if we want a more secure future, one that encourages prosperity for all, then it is necessary to keep the compass continuously oriented towards the “true north”, represented by authentic values. It is time to take bold and courageous steps for our beloved planet. This is the right time to put into practice our responsibility to contribute to the development of humanity.”
These last three paragraphs are words spoken by Pope Francis at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2018 that has just begun. When topics such as artificial intelligence, robotics, new technologies, care for the environment get squarely on the agenda of areas such as the Vatican we can confirm that something is changing in this world.
Also people like Leena Nair, the Chief Human Resources Officer of Unilever advocated what we have been sharing for some time: “We need to take back control, reframe the argument and start putting humans, not technology, first. We need to be more human.”
To conclude, if we review the “soft skills” that Jack MA referred to (change and time management, communication, personal interaction, negotiation, conflict and stress resolution, motivation, delegation, and public speaking) we can put the focus back on the urgent, which coincidentally is the important thing: the education of a society that was not and is not prepared for this new era. An education in all areas, starting with something as essential as remembering that technology must be at the service of human beings and not the other way around.
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