Peter Werkhoven: Beyond human? Innovation then and now

8 November 2016 • 2 min reading time

When the Greek philosopher Archytas (a friend of Plato) constructed the first mechanically-propelled bird, Aristotle wrote (Politika, 322BC): “… if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others … chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves” (translated to English). Around a century ago, playwright Karel Čapek coined the word ‘robot’ for these kinds of autonomous machines (from ‘robota’: forced labour).

A particularly interesting question is: at what point will robots surpass humans in terms of their motor, cognitive and emotional capability – a moment John von Neumann called ‘the singularity’. Robot cognition is quickly becoming a real possibility. This is not only because of huge advances in artificial intelligence, the availability of data from sensors (big data) and computing power, but also because humans are simply less good at it. However, when it comes to motor and emotional intelligence, robots still lag far behind. Robots struggle to tie laces or cut hair, but also to joke, think creatively or engage in loving conversation.

Not evolved to think logically

In our early evolution, if you spent too long thinking, you would be eaten up, which means that our brain has not developed to deal analytically with opportunities and risks, but instead for smart physical responses (fight or flight) and emotional communication (living in groups). The many cognitive biases that this creates are well known to psychology. In 2002, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for Economics for his studies into irrational human decision-making. He found that we continue to pursue hopeless cases for far too long (sunk cost fallacy), prefer to avoid losses rather than acquire gains (loss aversion) and that we value what we (almost) have more than what we do not have (winner’s curse). These things are ingrained in our psyches. My colleague Hans Korteling is part of a team conducting research into cognitive biases and training professionals in bias-sensitive complex and time-critical decision-making, in part by means of simulations and serious games.

“A particularly interesting question is: at what point will robots surpass humans in terms of their motor, cognitive and emotional capability?”

Takeover or symbiosis?

It is quite conceivable that much of the cognitive work humans do (diagnoses, problem-solving) can be done faster and more comprehensively by computers, and without human bias affecting thought processes and decision-making. Economists Frey and Osborne predict that around half of all jobs – especially experts, such as doctors and consultants – will be taken over by artificial intelligence and robots. Other professions will escape this fate by virtue of their creativity (artists, scientists), emotional interaction (carers) or complex motor skills (hairdressers). We will start collaborating with robots, ‘wearing’ them (exoskeletons) and intermingle with them. We will control robots remotely to conduct inspections and maintenance in dangerous and unpredictable environments. tEODor, the bomb disposal robot developed by Jan van Erp is one example of this, but similar technology could be used to allow consumers to experience virtual tourism in their living rooms. At European level, Michiel de Looze is working on Robo-Mate, an exoskeleton that strengthens the wearer’s arms and back, for use in physically-challenging work in the manufacturing and construction industries, logistics and healthcare. These developments are being boosted by the i-Botics Joint Innovation Center in alliance with the University of Twente, the business community and TNO. And according to Google’s Ray Kurzweil, our brains will ultimately go online and connect via networks, when so-called nanobots nestle between our neurons.

How long will humans continue to develop independently?

One exciting question is whether the next technological revolution will be instigated by humans or by technology itself (the singularity). What divides the two is the concept of creativity. And this is precisely the kind of core value that, in my view, will allow us to continue the tradition of innovation as humans for a long time to come.


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