In the forthcoming distribution of work, people will increasingly come face to face with machines. And when people combine to protect themselves, they appeal to humanity. In other words, they say that, while machines can be efficient, technology has no situational awareness and cannot bring dignity, pleasure and intimacy to human lives.
I claim that these arguments are false. I may be skating on thin ice on the subject of intimacy.
But humanity is often a matter of mathematics.
It is difficult to find care staff for remote areas. If a young doctor feels that being a GP in a health centre just isn’t her thing, it is difficult to persuade her otherwise. On the other hand, people cannot be forced to move away from home for the sake of healthcare.
The demographics are unrelenting: the Finnish labour force will shrink without a surge in immigration. Over the next ten years, we need at least 10% more healthcare staff and 20% more nursing staff. If we want to improve the service level, the figures are of course larger. We cannot take it for granted that we can simply lay our hands on these workers.
A machine could help in such a situation. All help is humane – it would be inhumane to leave people without it.
In her recent work Robotit töihin (Put robots to work), Dr Mari Kangasniemi estimated that 20% of nurses’ work could be done by machines. Viewed from another angle, this means that nurses could spend three instead of four days interacting directly with patients.
People tend to picture robots as automated guided vehicles which fetch goods from warehouses. Although these are already commonplace, here we mean smart software that can read radiology or pathology scans. Big Data-crunching software has already detected cancers unnoticed by humans.
This does not mean the trivialisation of the medical profession, but I think that a new technology-based profession, light doctors, will develop between physicians and nurses. These doctors will use sensors, the cloud and Big Data, with software providing assessments on the basis of thousands of comparable cases stored in the cloud.
But what about situational awareness? Patients and customers are not machines and care providers must be able to interpret their intentions, utterances and any outright nonsense spoken.
People are often not as mysterious as they think: smart software can also read expressions and emotions. Face recognition is one of the areas in which machines have moved ahead of humans in just a few years.
But surely a machine cannot add to the dignity of the experience? This is not a straightforward issue. An elderly person in need of care may feel ashamed about his state of helplessness, unless a machine, which is never bothered by the issue, helps him to the shower or toilet.
It would therefore be humane to build a future in which machines take greater responsibility.
In its robot strategy, among other aims Japan wants to see 100 new robotics-based care devices enter the market by 2020. This is a genuine target rather than the usual, bland strategy babble about an amazing future. If we don’t view Japan as a suitable comparison country, how about Denmark, which has so far been primarily known for sofas and pork?
To avoid falling behind, we have to stop referring to “cold technology”. On May Day, the trade union movement and citizens should also march on behalf of robots, since they will enable people to work in more productive jobs.
This is by far the biggest opportunity for the Finnish technology industry in decades.
Director, Finnish Business and Policy Forum EVA