31 August 2014

If you’ve ever watched a science fiction film, I’m willing to bet you’ll have seen some form of artificial intelligence threatening to enslave or destroy the human race. Whilst this is obviously a bit of an exaggeration, many people do worry about robotics advancing enough to replace real people in the workplace. And in some ways, I think we’ve already experienced this kind of shift in manufacturing where thousands of people’s jobs were lost when machinery took over. My uncle, Phil, once told me that in his job when he was in his twenties, rooms of people were replaced by one solitary chip.

You can’t really stop progress and I’m not really sure you would want to; although one argument is that we’re getting less intelligent ourselves because of an over reliance on and overuse of technology. I suppose you could say an example of this is mental arithmetic. When I was growing up, you’d never be able to take a calculator into one of our exams. Yet it became something that was acceptable and then the norm, so actually you didn’t need to know your multiplications or your arithmetic because you’ve got a machine there to do it for you. Is doing your own calculations not part of the whole idea of what maths is about?

However, while we’re poorer for some of the shortcuts technology provides, I think we’re definitely richer for others. Going back to my uncle again – he actually remembers the first horse-drawn ambulance! I mean, can you imagine having a real problem and needing to get to hospital but having to wait for the horse-drawn ambulance to arrive? I think it’s fair to say that we’ve been born into an era like no other.

In the last 100 years, there has been more progress and more technology uplift than any other 100 years in the history of the world. What’s interesting is how it’s growing exponentially and I think the reason it’s getting faster is that a lot of the technology now is intuitive. People are writing software that’s easy to play with and easy to programme, which is actually encouraging people to be creative and find their own shortcuts, using software language for all sorts of tasks.

I think the possibilities are limitless; the only limitation is our own imagination. The way I see it, we’re blessed to be in this fantastic era, but I also think we’ve got a responsibility to pick up a book and carry on learning. Technology isn’t a replacement for everything. It doesn’t remove the connections of eye contact or a handshake or a hug. What we mustn’t do is lose our emotional connection with other human beings because once we’ve done that, it would be the end of society as we know it, no need for an uprising of artificially intelligent robots!

There’s also a danger that there’s a new generation coming through that haven’t had the same outdoor experiences as we did, things like paper rounds, possibly because it’s not as safe as it was when we were growing up.  We’re living in a different type of world but as a result technology devices have got people sitting in front of the television or iPad. Whilst they’re great distractions and useful tools, even for learning, I think they need to come with some sort of parental control where you just say, “alright guys, let’s go and play tennis or kick a football now!” You need that balance between technology, common sense and fresh air!

When it comes to the workplace, I think common sense will determine where you draw the line when it comes to using technology. There will always be a need for it, and for convenience, but at the same time, there will always be a need for Rolls Royce customer service. I think the real balance here is to let the computers do the boring work, lifting a weight of people’s time, so that they can engage with customers, get creative and have fun. Ultimately, that’s the most important thing, and without the emotions and experiences of humans, it’s something that robots just can’t do!

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