Conversation with Dutch Philosopher Bas Haring: Robot, Colleague or Foe?

Ruben Baart
October 30th 2017

Last weekend we had the honor to welcome philosopher and writer Bas Haring to our exhibition HUBOT, the job agency for people and robots. We talked with him to discuss the conception, image and will of the robot, challenge our relationship with these kaleidoscopic creatures and take a HUBOT jobtest. Haring is no stranger to NNN, he was among the first ambassadors who joined our international network and contributed with a powerful story to the Next Nature Book. He is currently professor of Public Understanding of Science at the University of Leiden, has written a variety of popular books, including "Cheese and the Theory of Evolution", "The Iron Will" and "Plastic Pandas" and is a recurrent face on the Dutch television.

It's unimaginable for people living in 1917 to think of today's activities as ‘work’

The term ‘robot’ was first used to describe an artificial person in 1920. The word derives from Chech robota and implies a ‘forced laborer’ or ‘worker’. Nearly a century had passed, how do you define the robot?

When I hear the term robot, a rather classical image comes to mind. To me, a robot is something physical; it needs a body. I consider a robot a programmable machine for humans to adjust; think robotic arms working at a car factory. The basic idea of a robot is that it should have some sort of autonomous or personal appearance. I’m not saying it should resemble a human form (on the contrary), but following the example of the car factory, these robotic arms have something creature-like to make them appear as a species of their own.

It seems the battle between people and robots is not about power - as science fiction narratives had taught us - but about our jobs. Many people fear robots, are you afraid of them?

The idea that robots will take our jobs is a misconception, let me explain. First, we need to define the idea of work. Work is the time spent for the purpose of the other. So when you are at work, you are doing this for somebody else. Second, we must think ahead of the time when the robot arrives and wonder if there are less things to do for the purpose of the other. That question can simply be answered ‘no’. There will be enough activities for us to do, but these will be different activities.

Can you give an example?

Consider bricklaying. At the moment, robots are better at bricklaying than humans. And they are faster and cheaper. This means we would need to come up with something else to do, and over time you will see that work activities will start to adjourn. You are suggesting that we will work alongside the robot, and I’m not sure if I believe in that, but I do believe the working tasks will be different. So in terms of bricklaying, I would say, let the robot do it, because they are better at it.

There will always be something you can do for the other

It may as well be possible that in the short term people will lose their jobs. But the amount of work remains in the longer run. Imagine traveling back one hundred years and explain to the people of that time what they will be doing in a century. Chances are, they would not call it work, it's unimaginable for people living in 1917 to think of today's activities as ‘work’. And this is how it will be in the future.

So what will we be doing in the future?

Perhaps talking will be a new job in the future. Or fondling a person. There will always be something you can do for the other. And there will always be human activities, which I don’t expect to be automated soon. Talking is something I highly value when it comes to interaction. I don’t see myself having a personal conversation with a computer soon. The same goes for advising people to do human things. I have a friend who helps people clean their houses. This was unimaginable some years ago. The human contact is priceless, and could therefore become a profession in the future.

An 'accompanying robot' doesn't do it for you?

I dont see much added value in that. These creatures are limited, so you would have to employ them at things they are good at. I'm a firm believer that accompanying people is a human trait that will remain for at least the coming decades. Sure, there will be some people that prefer to be accompanied by a robot, but in the end it's a human thing.

The human contact is priceless, and could therefore become a profession in the future

When did you become aware of robots in your life?

I once studied artificial intelligence and in this field there are robots, naturally. But before my studies I got introduced to robots by reading Asimov's robot series and the three laws that come along with it.

The second law states that a robot must obey the orders given by human beings. Humans have decided that robots need to work. But does the robot want to work?

The question would be if the robot wants something in the first place. The free will of the robot becomes relevant when it starts behaving wild and complex. I'm not saying they will never reach that level, but robots are not there yet today. Before robots could have a will of their own, they would need to grow more complex in their behavior. In other words, I wouldn't speak of the intentions of a robot. Robots want to work to that end, they behave like insects, a simple organism without a will of its own. The insects has no will as well, it just does.

What happens when a robot wants something?

Imagine a machine that gives us the impression of having a will of its own. Think of an airplane equipped with a fully automated pilot, that flies exclusively on self-steering technology. Chances are we will not enter that plane simply because we don't trust it. Unless we know that the airplane also doesn't want to crash. Once we know it, we trust it. I can imagine such machines appearing at some point. The same thing goes for my car. If I know that my automatic car has the same intention to arrive in Eindhoven as fast as possible, I will trust its navigation more.

I wouldn’t speak of the intentions of a robot

How will we look at robots in ten years?

I'm expecting that people will move beyond the image of a robot looking like a person. We still see the robot as a human-form. I think this is rather useless, because we already have humans. To conclude, I would make the plea to update our ideas about robots!

Time for the jobtest! It appears Haring plays patience with his computer, prefers reading glasses over VR goggles and is looking for a virtual secretary. Turns out he has a career as an organ designer waiting for him. What is your future job? Take the HUBOT jobtest and let us know in the comments below!

NNN thanks Bas Haring and everyone who visited the offline office of HUBOT, the job agency for people and robots. Our virtual office is still open for business, make sure to visit the website and take the jobtest yourself. Do you want to read other interviews, learn more about HUBOT, and stay up-to-date about our latest job offers? Join NNN and never miss a thing!

 

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Should men be able to give birth to children?


Koert van Mensvoort: Is the artificial womb frankenstein-like symbol of (male) engineers trying to steal the magical womb from women? Or… is it a feminist project and needed to reach through equality between the sexes? I personally lean towards the latter. To me it feels like progress if a girl can tell a guy to carry the womb for a change.

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