David Hanson is no stranger to going against the grain.
A PwC survey of 10,000 global workers found that 73 percent believe that technology will never replace the human mind but Hanson, the Founder and CEO of the eponymously named Hanson Robotics, has a contrary view.
“I don’t see why somebody would conclude that technology will never replace the human mind,” he says adamantly.
“The term ‘never’ becomes quaint over time. For instance, ‘we will never fly’ or ‘we will never need computers with greater than X number of megabytes or kilobytes’.”
The sculptor turned robotics designer has a history of breaking new frontiers. His Hong Kong-based AI and robotics company enjoyed a landmark year in 2017, with its flagship humanoid robot, Sophia, landing a series of historic firsts.
In October of that year, Hanson Robotics made international headlines when Sophia the Robot was granted Saudi Arabian citizenship at the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh. In so doing, Sophia became the first robot to receive citizenship of any country in the world.
The following month, Sophia was appointed the inaugural United Nations (UN) Innovation Champion for Asia and the Pacific by the UN Development Programme, becoming the first non-human to be given a UN title.
“I don’t see why somebody would conclude that technology will never replace the human mind.”
Sophia has since gone on to star in an internet series titled Being Sophia, which “chronicles Sophia’s emerging life, adventures, experiences and her quest to learn and develop into a super-intelligent, benevolent being,” according to the Hanson Robotics website.
Sophia even has a little sister, aptly named Little Sophia, a 35.6-centimeter tall interactive robot that encourages children to learn about coding, AI, science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Will thinking machines create more meaningful employment?
Today, Hanson is consumed with answering a burning question – namely, will thinking machines introduce a new era of deeper, more meaningful jobs? He’s convinced they will.
According to the Oxford Economics report, ‘How Robots Change the World’, the net effect of the emergence of thinking machines is that it will fundamentally change the nature of the core skills and abilities companies look for in recruits.
The report highlights that firms will place a higher premium on soft skills, such as creativity, compassion, social intelligence and emotional intelligence – all intrinsically human qualities that robots aren’t yet capable of emulating.
Hanson agrees with the report’s key finding and hones in on the essence of automation. “Automation is about efficiency,” he says. “It’s about increasing productivity, increasing capacity and enhancing human capabilities. It’s about a more efficient use of natural resources.
“If we apply automation, AI and robotics in the right way, they will increase the output of the global economy – making life better for everyone.”
His defense of the advanced AI automation movement is a robust one, which heavily relies on a recital of central historical events.
“In the beginning, automation displaced workers in textile factories, for example. People were put out of jobs and it was a frustrating situation, but it didn’t mean there was a total collapse of the labor market,” he says.
“Since then, automation has boomed in all manufacturing. The massive productivity of the 20th century, going into the 21st century, was because of automation. The increasing standard of living and gross domestic product were due to automation, computer automation and AI robotics. All these technological advances are starting to have a much greater impact.”
“As leaders, we have to take responsibility for putting AI and robots out in ways that make people’s lives better.”
For Hanson, the onus is on corporate and governmental leadership to roll out advanced AI automation responsibly.
“Ultimately, we have to take a human perspective on implementing it. As leaders, we have to take responsibility for putting AI and robots out in ways that make people’s lives better,” he says.
Can thinking machines increase innovation without increasing inequality?
The Oxford Economics report found that thinking machines will eradicate jobs and exacerbate inequality.
But Hanson offers a potential solution for corporate leaders and governments, one that promotes the innovation that robots promise while ensuring that they don’t create new divides in society.
“Open-source and transparent robotics can help a lot,” he says assuredly.
“Making AI tools and education free and inclusive, so we can make them available to disadvantaged populations, is very important for the safe deployment of AI in the future.”
Workplace 2030 and beyond: The era of human–AI partnerships
A joint report published by Dell and the Institute for the Future states that 85 percent of all jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.
Hanson envisages that “a lot of new jobs will call for human intuitive insights and creativity sentience – the kind of things that AI can’t do yet”.
He predicts that, by 2030, we’ll see more ‘human–AI synergy’ across the global workforce, which will “likely turn into AI–human collaborative relationships, whereby AI makes humans better and humans make AI better.”
And what is the roboticist’s take on Google’s infamous firing of Blake Lemoine, a former senior software engineer who was dismissed last year for saying he believed the tech giant’s AI chatbot was a ‘sentient being’ and had a ‘soul’?
“A lot of new jobs will call for human intuitive insights and creativity sentience – the kind of things that AI can’t do yet.”
Even though Hanson Robotics’ slogan is, “we bring robots to life”, Hanson freely admits that “nobody knows how to make a sentient, generally intelligent, understanding machine.”
But he doesn’t rule out sentient machines becoming a reality in the future and estimates that it could happen within five, 10 or 15 years.
“That’s what our goal is at Hanson Robotics,” Hanson concludes. “If this happens, my hope is that we make machines that really care about civilization and boosts its stability, output and abundance, so people can be free to pursue their dreams.
“And maybe we can find ways to augment human intelligence and talent, so we can evolve. After all, that’s what AI is – the augmentation of humans and human intelligence.”