Robot Morning Future
Imagining Books 19 January Jan 2018 1203 19 January 2018

Technology vs. Humanity: the coming clash between man and machine

The book by Gerd Leonhard raises an ethical reflection on the future relationship between man and robots, as they become ever more pervasive and intrusive. And it reminds us that the time for such reflection is running out.

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The title itself suggests a clear antithesis. Technology vs. Humanity - The coming clash between man and machine, by futurist and keynote speaker Gerd Leonhard, is a book that doesn’t beat about the bush. It has a message to send out, and that is that if we do not reflect effectively on the changes underway, we will relinquish every chance of steering them. Hence the title and the provocative tone. Which side are you on? With the robots or with Will Smith? With Ke Jie or with AlphaGo? Will we become more like machines, or will they become more like us?

We can no longer waver between celebrating the technological revolution and mourning a lost world. We can no longer indulge in the Hollywood-style dualism between utopia and dystopia. According to Leonhard, the moment has come to face a debate that can no longer be postponed. And the debate must have a clear starting point, with human welfare and happiness at the centre of every decision-making and governance process.

As technology develops at an exponential rate and redefines the way we work, live and even think, Leonhard gives voice to a series of doubts and questions that, in his opinion, should have been addressed long ago. He raises a number of pressing points, listing the multiple Megashifts we will have to face, analysing the ongoing love story between man and technology, and providing food for thought on the long-standing debate on jobs at risk. But he warns us: there is a whole new set of critical issues, because technology is no longer just redrawing our economy and society, but also our biology (ageing, childbirth, etc.) and our ethics. Hence the book’s most important message: the pressing need for ethical reflection.

“Are we OK with entrusting certain decisions to artificial intelligence? Will we be OK with being force-medicated by a robot?”

Technology, we know, is nihilistic by nature. This raises a series of doubts: for example, what should robot caregivers do when patients refuse to take their medicines? They could be programmed to use force in the face of a certain percentage of damage. A completely different way of acting (and making decisions) than human beings. Which begs the question: “Are we OK with entrusting certain decisions to artificial intelligence? Will we be OK with being force-medicated by a robot?”

The need for ethics is also demonstrated by broader issues. According to Leonhard, the IoT (Internet of Things), if not properly managed, could lead to the largest surveillance network of all time, a sort of global Panopticon.

The author, therefore, launches a full-scale attack against the lack of precaution and foresight in the use of technology, especially on the part of its creators. “Technologies are morally neutral until we apply them,” said the science fiction writer William Gibson. And to quote Benjamin Parker, the uncle of Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man), “With great power comes great responsibility”.

Now is the time - and, as Leonhard never tires to remind us, “the last chance” - to join the dots between big data and digital ethics, to start discussing the moral framework required to steer the evolution of digital life, to bridge the gap between what technology can do (more or less anything, it would seem) and what it should do to achieve human happiness, and to reflect once again on what makes human beings unique. In short, to rethink the role of humanity in the post-human world.

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