‘You are my creator, but I am your master; Obey!’
Mary Shelley, ‘Frankenstein’
Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein first gave life to his Creature in the early nineteenth century, we have been fascinated by science’s ability to replicate and enhance human beings’ physical and mental capabilities. And we have wondered whether these machines could acquire human feelings and emotions. Could a robot have a soul?
‘I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.’
Mary Shelley, ’Frankenstein’
In 1968 Philip K. Dick famously asked ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ And his novel spawned the 1982 movie ‘Blade Runner.’ It concerned itself with the possibility that synthetic humans, ‘replicants,’ might develop memories and emotions; that they might even acquire a capacity for love. The recent sequel, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ speculates on the possibility of humans and replicants cross-breeding; of a replicant that is ‘born, not made.’
There are countless books and films about robots, androids and humanoids. They seem to return again and again to the possibility that in the future machines might not just act and think like humans; that perhaps they might feel like us too.
‘Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ’More human than human’ is our motto.’
Eldon Tyrell, ‘Blade Runner’
Of course, in recent years we have seen science fiction evolve into science fact. And the discourse seems to be following the same path. Industry has already automated basic physical tasks, and is progressing onto the not-so-basic. With the onward march of AI, businesses are automating the mental functions too. Increasingly leaders are asking how many of the everyday exercises of commerce can be taken over by machines. And inevitably they are wondering whether artificial intelligence can feel as well as think. Will there be a time when we can entirely replace humans in the workforce?
‘In our bank we have people doing work like robots. Tomorrow we will have robots behaving like people.’
John Cryan, CEO of Deutche Bank, The Guardian 6 Sep 2017
I think we may be getting ahead of ourselves.
I’ve no doubt that some sectors and services will in time succumb entirely to automation. But I suspect that there are other services that are so central to our lives that they will retain a requirement for essentially human qualities: for emotion and empathy, sense and sensibility; for care, craft and creativity.
Robots can act and think, but they can’t feel – or at least they can’t yet feel as well as human beings can.
To my mind we talk too much about robots and AI substituting or replacing people. It would be more helpful to consider automation augmenting or enhancing human skills and talents. Many businesses will continue to need ‘humans in the loop.’ Perhaps their future will be less about robots and more about cyborgs: ‘organisms whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body.’
‘Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive…Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better…stronger…faster.’
In the 1970s TV adventure series ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ NASA astronaut Colonel Steve Austin is injured in a horrendous crash. Doctors manage to put him back together with the aid of bionic implants in his right arm, both his legs and one eye. When Austin recovers, he is fitter, faster and stronger than any normal human being, and so is put to use by the US Government fighting crime and foreign agents.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a Bionic Man. I’d sprint in mock slow motion across the fields that backed onto our back garden, intent on intercepting enemy spies. With my infra-red vision, I’d spot hazards in the dark. With my robotic-enhanced strength, I’d throw cars out of my way. And all accompanied by the ‘dit, dit, dit’ sound effect of my bionics in action.
The appeal of the Bionic Man was that he had superhuman talents, but he remained fundamentally human in nature. He could run at 60mph; he had the strength of a bulldozer; he had a zoom lens in his eye. But he could also be brave, truculent, considerate, romantic. Critically he could feel.
Imagine the Bionic Brand: a service organisation that integrates the advantages of automation with profoundly human qualities; combining technical efficacy with human empathy; functionality with feeling; calculation with creativity. An organisation where the machines supply the corporate IQ and colleagues supply the EQ; an organisation that is both high tech and high touch.
As Steve Austin’s boss, Oscar Goldman, might have said:
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we can rebuild it. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic brand. Ours will be that brand. Better than it was before. Better…stronger…faster.’