09/02/2015 09:24 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2016

Let's Treat Robots Like Yo-Yo Ma's Cello -- as an Instrument for Human Intelligence

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A theme of recent stories about artificial intelligence is that robots make disappointing lovers. In an episode of the BBC TV series "Black Mirror," Martha replaces her deceased boyfriend Ash with a synthetic look-alike programmed with a personality assembled from his extensive online contributions. She is initially impressed by the duplicate's performance in the sack -- human Ash is presented as a somewhat disengaged lover. When Martha asks synthetic Ash how he manages it, his answer -- "Set routine, based on pornographic videos" -- seems unsatisfactory. It's all downhill from there. Synthetic Ash is very definitely not human Ash back from the dead.

I think that we can learn things about robots' predicted romantic failings that will help us to find a place for humans in the workforce emerging from the digital revolution. We live at a time when it seems that almost anything that human workers can do, machines can do better -- if not now, in a few decades' time. We feel obliged to caution our kids, "Sure, you can become a firefighter when you grow up ... so long as that job still exists." A particularly nasty digital variety of technological unemployment threatens the jobs of clerks, photographers, truck drivers, pilots and doctors. It seems to offer human workers little in return.

However, we can find places for humans in the workforce of the digital age if we recognize the value of things that humans do for each other. There are aspects of lovemaking that favor the value of efficiency. Synthetic Ash outperforms human Ash in these respects. He lasts longer than 30 seconds and facilitates more orgasms. His mode of programming suggests he could have a "Fifty Shades of Grey" setting that Martha might save for special occasions. These aspects of lovemaking clearly matter.

We don't view Yo-Yo Ma as mere facilitator of sounds produced by the cello.

But there is something else that matters too. Let's call it humanness. Martha wants a lover who does more than just a very good job of going through the requisite motions. She wants to be with someone who is capable of reciprocating her feelings. This, synthetic Ash can't do. AI enthusiasts look forward to a time when robots will both do what we do and feel what we feel. There are already robots that look like humans. But it will be some time before there are human feelings behind those human-like faces.

Many jobs resemble lovemaking in combining an interest in efficiency with an interest in humanness. There is an important efficiency component in waiting tables. Food orders must be taken promptly and accurately and conveyed to the kitchen. The food that emerges must go to the right individuals at the right tables. It's not surprising that when we focus on the efficiency aspects of waiting tables, the job seems ripe for automation. But we care about the humanness of waiters too. We like waiters who ask, "Did you enjoy the stew?" not because their programming reflects a finding that diners like to be asked such questions but because they have some genuine, if fleeting, interest in how you liked it. We value waiters who can have feelings like ours. Humanness is the value behind the many jobs that require interpersonal skills. It's a significant value behind decisions about how to run societies composed of humans.

Perhaps human contributions will still be worth something in a digitally enhanced future. But how much? The powers of machines are steadily increasing while human abilities are largely static. In workplaces that combine humans and machines, will we offer any more than a human veneer on jobs basically done by machines?

Our current obsession with the powers of digital technology could give way to placing greater importance on what humans do with technology.

We should resist this way of sharing out the credit that results from collaborations between humans and machines. Yo-Yo Ma's remarkable sounds emerge from a collaboration between him and his cello. We choose to view his contributions as more important. We don't view Yo-Yo Ma as mere facilitator of sounds produced by the cello. His name does not appear in small print alongside "Petunia," the name of his primary performance instrument. There's nothing that prevents us from granting the same kind of recognition to humans whose jobs require them to collaborate with computers.

Ours is an age of high excitement about what digital technologies can do. They are the new technologies on the block. I hope for a future in which computers follow the path taken by electricity. Electricity was the wonder technology of the late 1800s and early 1900s. A sense of awe about it survived into the 1950s, when General Electric ran "live better electrically" advertisements in which Ronald Reagan welcomed viewers into his home, where they got to see some of the miraculous ways in which electricity improved the lot of the Reagan family.

Electricity is more indispensable now than it was in the 1950s. But we aren't quite so excited about it. It would be odd to see a 2015 "live better electrically" advertisement in which a latter day Reagan enthuses, "It's all because of electricity that Nancy can instantaneously send 140 characters all around the world!" Twitter would be impossible without electricity. But electricity is not in the foreground of our thinking about the benefits of social networking technologies -- its contribution is basically assumed.

As digital technologies vacate center stage, there should be greater opportunities for humans to claim starring roles.

This could be the future for digital technologies. They will continue to be essential and may even become more so. But as the digital age matures, we may find them hogging less of the limelight. Apple and Google could share the fate of the companies that sprang up in the late 1800s to meet the new demand for electricity. Governments will feel empowered to intervene to disrupt monopolies in the supply of these essential services just as they intervened to break up monopolies in the supply of energy. We think about the difference that Apple's products have made to our lives and find its gargantuan profits appropriate. But our current obsession with the powers of digital technology could give way to placing greater importance on what humans do with technology.

There is no doubt that the digital revolution is having a disruptive and transformative impact on the labor market. Perhaps the future doesn't contain humans who fly jetliners or perform keyhole surgeries -- these are jobs for which efficiency trumps any interest in the humanity of pilots or surgeons. Nevertheless, our own human complexity suggests that there is plenty of scope for humans assisted by digital technologies (and electricity) to create ways to satisfy the needs of other humans. As digital technologies vacate center stage, there should be greater opportunities for humans to claim starring roles. No matter how stupendous our technologies, we still have the option of living in a human-centered world.

This is part of the WorldPost Series on Exponential Technology.

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