The Fluid Society


As long as humanity has developed technology, there is a fascination for the idea that you could make a fake human or robot. Now that it has gradually come to the point that enough intelligent computer power can be put into a waddling doll, with Sophia from Hong Kong as an example, many people are getting anxious about this development. After all, what if the following versions indeed make human labor in many functions completely unnecessary? Should millions of people fear for their jobs and will humans become a slave to intelligent robots at best? That while we already have a large surplus of people who have little prospect of decent work, given the world overcrowding?

A few points are important in these developments. First of all: it will take a long time before intelligent robots can easily take over human work. And if they can ever do that, robots like that will be terribly expensive. It is the people-caring jobs such as care giver, house painter, gardener, worker that are the most complicated jobs for robots. After all, for all the sub-tasks that such a job requires, from cleaning a paintbrush to cutting branches from a hedge, extremely complex programs have to be made. And even then. Those robots will always have problems in those kinds of jobs with small unexpected, ie unprogrammed, events. It is highly questionable whether it is of social use to develop very complex and expensive robots to mimic and replace the human species, when we already have so many people. After all, the robot will remain “second-best” in almost all jobs in which varied manual work occurs. Moreover, it will undoubtedly turn out that the vast majority of people in human-caring positions much more prefer empathetic contact with a fellow human being than artificial contact with a chatting robot

Another point may be more important. A robot is nothing more or less than a running computer. In the vast majority of cases, it makes no sense at all for such a robot to resemble a human. If there is already a need for a moving computer, such as production halls, or for cleaning containers, or for mowing the lawn, then it is of no use at all to make such a robot look like a human. Or think of the self-driving car: a robot par excellence, which, however, should not resemble a human. Such a moving robot should simply have a functional design that suits the work in question.

And with that we get to the most important point: computers are not people and never will be. People have important skills that computers don’t have and vice versa. People can think conceptually, have empathy, are emotional. People are strong in multi-tasking: performing varied and varied activities. In addition, people can easily adapt to other circumstances. Robots are strong in mono-tasking: performing many of the same actions in a limited context, endlessly, quickly, with great quality and precision. Computers can calculate very quickly, and process a lot of data according to algorithms.

Particularly as a result of the last point, computers sometimes seem intelligent and we speak of artificial intelligence. However, there is no intelligence, which is misleading. It is intelligent if you are able to think at a higher abstraction level. A computer is bad at that. Because he calculates quickly, he seems intelligent and can even learn from his mistakes, albeit always in a limited context. What the computer is also good at is recognizing repetitive patterns, in short, revealing the hidden algorithm from apparently archaic data sets. That too is not intelligent, just the result of endlessly repeating, trying and comparing. However, the relatively simple jobs with a lot of manual labor for people, the example of the worker or house painter, besides more creative or intelligent jobs are and remain extremely complex for a walking computer. Multi-tasking robots will always be terribly complex and expensive.

What needs to happen in the coming years is that we use the computer or robot for things in which it can excel, and then a lot of work remains for people, in which people can excel. The computer or robot has unique qualities and so does humans, but are completely different in terms of employability. There is no point in making robots for functions in which humans, given their nature as a living being, will always be much better at. Conversely, it makes little sense that people continue to do work in which a computer is better. The latter effect will ensure that a great deal of human labor will now be taken over by computers, whether or not they are moving.

A lot of so-called intelligent work turns out not to be that intelligent at all, because 80% is often repetitive standard work, in which a computer is better at. The intelligent work of the general practitioner or lawyer, is in the 20% labor at the higher abstraction level that the computer cannot. Many jobs in administration and production processes will disappear or change drastically in terms of work content. A lot of routine work by notaries, lawyers, civil servants, general practitioners will also be digitized.

This means that the labor market will change drastically, worldwide, in the coming years. Let’s see that as positive developments. So that people can focus on the real “people’s work” and do what people are good at, such as caring for older people or children, or providing good training (using learning systems, though), or doing creative work, or work involving manual dexterity is important. But also: advisory functions in many areas, from care to financial-administrative, where the computer serves as an encyclopedic reference work for the expert.

And perhaps there will also be more free time for humans thanks to the use of computers, and there can be no objection to that either. But let’s stop the expensive research to make robots that take over current human jobs, in which the robot has no real added value and in which humans will always be better. Nice to frighten people, but not socially relevant and commercially not feasible.

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