Handshake with robots? Reflecting on our second salon event

Handshake with robots? Reflecting on our second salon event

-Nina Liu

‘Hey, Pepper’, I looked into the eyes of the social robot Pepper, who looked back at me with enthusiasm and kindness. Luckily enough, our second TEDxAUCollege Salon event was joined by this little humanoid robot, who helped liven things up and contributed to the vibrant atmosphere. The idea of living together with robots might sound unthinkable and terrifying, yet this will probably become reality in the near future. As Artificial Intelligence (AI) is progressing at high speeds, numerous questions have popped up: Will robots take over our jobs? How will AI evolve and influence our lives in the future? Are we able to peacefully live together with robots? In this blog post, we will delve deeper into these burning questions, and see what answers our two speakers have offered during the second TEDxAUCollege salon event of the year.

The ‘extinction’ of humankind

“Once artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, it might simply exterminate humankind.” Having published Homo Sapience, Professor Yuval Noah Harari outlines his pessimistic vision of technological development in his following-up book Homo Deus. Harari points out that robots will ultimately outcompete human beings in all aspects and push humans out of the job market, thus making everyone unemployable. To make things worse, the technocrats who own robots will manipulate the world and create an unprecedented social hierarchy. This all sounds frightening, but will AI be as powerful as Harari predicts?

Contextualization as unique human capability

Our first speaker Janine Khuc is quite optimistic about living in a world with robots. She believes that AI can ease human jobs, but never replace humankind completely. To illustrate this argument, let us zoom into the field of healthcare. Nothing is more natural and common, than getting sick at some point in life. Yet in worst-case scenarios, people may suffer from cancer or fatal disease. You go to hospital, receive a treatment, and all you can do is wait and hope for things to get better, and that the treatment works for you.

Apart from sitting on pins and needles and feeling desperate, there are still things that doctors can work on – collecting historical data and tailoring a targeted treatment plan for the patient. Data offers potential – it allows us to test out and learn what treatment might work better. Depressingly, however, we as human beings are inherently and inevitably biased after all, so we can hardly collect impartial precise data. We have to rely on AI to help generate perfectly accurate data.

Now you may wonder, if machines are so accurate and efficient in generating useful data, does that not mean that doctors will become redundant? ‘No, it doesn’t’, explains Janine, because ‘data in itself is not yet evidence’. AI can only produce massive sets of raw data, and of course, many types of data are useless and disrupting. You can never expect machines to be capable of distinguishing correlation and causation when processing data, so it is up to human beings to filter out the irrelevant information.  Doctors will always need to contextualize all available information, through searching for associations and patterns from a sea of chaotic data.  In other words, turning data into evidence will always require careful assessment, and thus requires human minds.

Immigrants from future

Our second speaker Roeland van Oers, also shared some mind-blowing views on how ‘social robots’ have the potential to improve our future working space. He refers to robots as ‘immigrants from the future’ and believes AI will ultimately enter the market and become an indispensable part of our life.

You may not notice that AI has already gradually been incorporated into many aspects of our lives. Having started with the self-check-out machines in supermarkets, we now have been introduced to self-driving cars, and robots in shopping malls. At the moment, engineers are attempting to design robots that can take care of elderly and babies. Having robots in our life sounds genuinely appealing: they would release us of certain burdens, leaving us with more free time that can be used to pursue other, more creative, and original jobs.

A final note on the development of AI

Rome was not built in a day. Similarly, it took decades for AI to get to where it is today. As it continues to progress, some predictions indicate that, by 2050, robots will even possess the same self-learning abilities as humans. In other words, they will no longer be mindless machines that blindly follow instructions of humankind. Just like us, they will have emotions, feelings, preferences, and maybe even moral conscience. What would happen then?

All in all, the future is uncertain and unpredictable, but there is nothing to fear. At least for now, we have developed a close ‘friendship’ with our smartphones, and we enjoy having a small talk with Siri once in a while. Let us keep our minds open and stay positive. Let us shake hands with robots and say ‘hi’ to these technological immigrants from the future.


If you are hungry for more info about AI, check out these interesting TED talks:

  1. Nick Bostrom: What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?
  2. Sam Harris: Can we build AI without losing control over it?
  3. Hod Lipson: Building ‘self-aware’ robots
  4. Zeynep Tufekci: Intelligence makes human morals more important
  5. Kevin Kelly: How AI can bring on a second Industrial Revolution

A little side note: Do you have an idea or aspiration that you are eager to share? Here is an opportunity for you to shine! TEDxAUCollege Pitch Night 2019 is soon approaching, and we kindly invite everyone to participate. All you have to do is fill in the application form, and you may get a chance to deliver your pitch on stage.