The Role of Humans in a Technological World

Published 6 June 2019

In a heavily tech-focused world, are we undermining our human side?

The latest Nielsen report on Total Audience – based on U.S data – reveals that on average, we spend about 10 ½ hours per day connected to technological devices such as phones, tablets, computers, radios or TVs[i]. We feel disconnected from the world without technology. We rely on technology at work; we rely on technology to maintain the relationships with the people we love and care about. When technology permeates every aspect of our life, are we in danger of losing the human touch?

Figure 1 – Media Time by Demographic from The Nielsen Company 2019

Recently, HCLI had a rare opportunity to host an exceptional panel of experts on human capital, AI and technology at our flagship Singapore Business Leadership Programme. The panel was convened to discuss the changing role of humans in an increasingly technological world.

Our guests pointed out that there are a lot of misconceptions about AI, robotics and automation.

First of all, these technologies are not new; they have been intensively researched over the past three decades. AI as a topic has recently gained traction from the business world; this has quickly created a sense of hype. And secondly, discussions about AI and robots often come with an assumption that they have already taken over, they will take over our jobs and that as humans, we have reached our “sell-by” date.

When we think about technology and the future, an image of a society where we are side-by-side with realistic-looking robots often comes to mind. We imagine robots will work with us in offices, wait tables at restaurants, check us into hotels, and greet us at hospital registration desks. That future may not be that far off. Nadine, the most human-like robot is already bringing that future closer. She started as a receptionist at Nanyang Technological University, then moved to AIA Insurance Company in Singapore to work as a customer service agent[ii]. Nadine is a socially intelligent robot and she has a personality, she can engage in the flow of the conversation, read your facial expressions and understand your feelings[iii].

Figure 2 – Nadine: the most human-like robot created by Prof. Nadia Thalmann. Photo Credit: Institute for Media Innovation, Nanyang Technological University

Websites such as Will Robots Take My Job give you insights about how much a job pays (in US$), projected growth and how safe you are in this job in terms of automation. Jobs that demand the human factor and strong analytical skills such as teachers, anthropologists/archaeologists (<1%), or graphic designers and engineers (8%) have a pretty low chance of being replaced by automation. Sociologists like me have a 6% chance of being replaced by robots. On the other hand, low-skilled jobs such as maids and housekeeping cleaners face the whopping prospect of being replaced by automation as their risk level comes in at 69%, and the risk is also very high for taxi drivers at 89%, no doubt as the self-driving vehicles become a reality.

Wolfram Hedrich, Executive Director at Marsh & McLennan Insights, reminded us about the people who are left behind in the maelstrom of fast-changing technology. Some can’t keep up or don’t have the opportunities to keep up. He and his colleagues found that older workers are more likely to be vulnerable when societal ageing combines with rapid automation in the workplace, particularly when the older population is estimated to account for one-third of the world’s population by 2030[iv]. In many countries, the elderly population has also been overlapping with the lower-skilled segment of the workforce for quite some time now.

How then can we ensure that we don’t create even more inequality while going forward?

The World Economic Forum estimates that about 75 million jobs will be replaced, while 133 million jobs may emerge by 2022[v]. Naveen Menon, President at Cisco (ASEAN), emphasised that where we are now, robots are more suitable to replace tasks rather than jobs. Monotonous, repetitive, and administrative tasks are very likely to be replaced by automation. We have already seen their applications in various business aspects such as the Application Tracking System (ATS) in recruitment and intelligent chatbots in customer service.

Professor Nadia Thalmann, the creator of the most human-like robot Nadine, agreed that even though robots and AI have been advancing very fast, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Robots are not yet as sophisticated as humans: they are still unable to read all the nuances in language and facial expressions as we do.

The big questions are: “Who are we? What defines us as human?”.

What sets us apart from machines are the qualities that machines cannot possess. We have emotions, empathy, creativity, and we possess a fear of dying, to name a few.

Technology is not going to stop moving forward. Its applications have already been enormously impactful on our lives. There is no “either/or” when thinking about technology and human – we are going to need a combination of both Artificial Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence. A perfect balance of the two would create a workforce with “Expert Humans”, a term coined by Michael Jenkins, CEO (2018– 2020) of HCLI. Expert Humans are digitally savvy, technically knowledgable and at the same time, warm, compassionate, and humane.

So what do we want to do when technology frees us from dreary, monotonous tasks and gives us more capacity—more time—to be human?

This article uses some comments from the panel:The Role of Humans in the New World,at HCLI’sSingapore Business Leaders Programmeon 9 May 2019, discussed by:

Michael Jenkins, CEO(2018– 2020)at Human Capital Leadership Institute

Prof. Nadia Thalmann, Nanyang Technological University

Naveen Menon, President at Cisco (ASEAN)

Wolfram Hedrich, Executive Director at Marsh & McLennan Insights

[i] Nielsen. (2019). The Nielsen Total Audience Report Quarter 3 2018.

[ii] AIA To Pioneer Adoption Of Artificial Intelligence In Singapore’s Life Insurance Sector. (n.d.). Retrieved May 13, 2019

[iii] Nadine Social Robot, NTU.

[iv] Basu, M., Hedrich, W., Sung, P., & Chacko, L. (2018).The Twin Threats Of Aging And Automation.Marsh & McLennan.

[v] World Economic Forum. (2018).The Future of Jobs.

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