From robots to cobots, redefining humanity

The late Joseph Engelberger, the founder of one of the world’s first robot manufacturers, was a staunch opponent of the idea that robots would threaten human existence by taking away jobs.

On the contrary, he saw robots as liberating people from menial, soul-destroying repetitive tasks and empowering them to achieve a whole lot more with their lives.

Robots don’t destroy employment, he argued, rather they “take away subhuman jobs which we assign to people” and in so doing we give people the time and tools to be enhanced humans – “superhumans”.

Humans have the opportunity to finally concentrate on those jobs that suit them best; jobs involving creativity, emotion and innovative disruption. These jobs are not easily replaced by a clever piece of engineering or a mathematical algorithm; they are quintessentially human and will probably remain so.

This is not to say that engineering and big data will not assist in this process, augment existing human capacities, but rather than replace us they will be at our side to serve us. No longer will we follow the rhythm of machines but machines will be re-contoured so as to fit our needs and aspirations in the production process (as they are increasingly doing so in the consumption process).

This change involves a definition of what it is to be human. A vast majority of jobs are only taken as a source of earning money; as a way to survive rather than a tool for developing and expressing ourselves.

If we undertake more meaningful jobs the concept of humanity redefines itself. The key question of why we are here elicits a fundamentally different response; a new purpose, humans doing truly human work. Work which helps us to understand and extend what being human really means.

(Written together with Andrew Dodd)

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