Could robots ever replace the warmth of a human touch?

The advances in AI are mindblowing, but just because the tech is available doesn’t mean we should cast humans aside, says Zone partner Amanda McKenna...

Granary Square

Stepping back for a moment and observing the buzz in the room at a networking event I hosted at Zone last week – as 50 women bonded over art, technology and a glass of wine – it occurred to me that nothing can replace the warmth and power of human-to-human connection, certainly in my field of business development.
There’s plenty of scaremongering these days about automation replacing people. An Oxford University report last month suggested that AI will be better than human workers at all tasks in just 45 years and will overtake us mere mortals in some roles pretty soon, including translating languages (by 2024), driving a truck (2027) and even working as a surgeon (2053).
But in my 20-odd years of working in agencies convincing people that it is a good idea to work with us, I have found that there is no substitute for a genuine relationship. I am in the camp that believes that human consciousness cannot be replicated by a computer. And I find it impossible to imagine a world where human interactions no longer underpin our society.
Or at least, I did – until I started researching this piece. Then I came across some of the work that Dr Hiroshi Ishiguro at Tokyo University is doing with his androids. And it both fascinated and chilled me to the bone.

Watch Erica (pictured), one of Dr Ishiguro’s most advanced androids, talk about love and you get the distinct impression there’s a personality in there. As well as being capable of lifelike blinking, fidgeting and breathing, Erica currently works as Dr Ishiguro’s receptionist. And as technology continues to advance at breakneck speed, he expects her to take on other roles such as companion for the elderly, foreign language tutor and newsreader.

Dr Ishiguro says most people adapt to interacting with Erica very quickly – “Androids are not uncanny any more” – but he thinks fears about robots taking our jobs are overblown. Rather, he believes automation will take over menial tasks, making it easier for humans to relax and keep evolving. Of course, the humans whose jobs have been taken over may find it difficult to relax if they are unemployed, but Bill Gates has suggested that a robot tax could mitigate at least some of the social ills this could cause.
Inverting the usual format, two robots debated the future of humanity at a recent tech event in Hong Kong. The machines, named Han and Sophia, called reality shows “silly” and said that “humans are not the most ethical creatures” – and it’s hard to argue with either of those points. They also said that robots will take over the world within 20 years, and while they may have had tongue in cheek (if a robot can actually do that), Stephen Hawking has warned that tech needs to be controlled to prevent it from destroying the human race.
Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, has gone even further and predicted that ‘singularity’ – the moment when artificial intelligence exceeds the intellectual capacity of humans and creates a runaway effect – will happen in 2029. Unlike others Kurzweil isn’t concerned about AI, however, believing that machines will improve humans, helping us to become better people.
Despite all of these momentous predictions, there is one thing that cannot be ignored: people like to deal with people. Whether it’s expanding our networks over a glass of wine, being treated by a doctor or managing our money, sometimes we need the trust and comfort of the human touch. There’s no question that technology will continue to disrupt our jobs, but don’t expect humanity to be redundant any time soon.