Jumping Robots, Bioprinting and Why the Humanities Matter

04/11/2019

Staci K. Hegarty M.Ed, IpX Academia Director


I’m sitting in Manchester, UK after spending the past few days at the Industry 4.0 Academia Summit. It has been an inspiring, mind-blowing, and a bit unnerving experience. The research being conducted at universities around the world is astounding. 3D printing (additive manufacturing) is changing the way we make things, including biological things. We aren’t printing replacement organs yet, but it can’t be far off. Robots are being designed to jump, which will give them mobility they don’t currently have. AI. AR. VR. Smart cities. Everyone here is in agreement that these are some of the things that make up the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. But the same questions kept coming up, after nearly every presentation. All of these technological advances are amazing and either have or will change the way life on earth operates. But what about the negative people? Jobs will be lost, and we don’t know what to do with the people who will be displaced. Re-skilling or up-skilling may be possible for some, but for others…well, it looks a bit bleak. 

During the First Industrial Revolution, which started right here in the UK, some of the displaced workers rebelled. Not far from Manchester the Luddites were burning mills to the ground, opposing the technology that was good for production but harmful to the common good of the people. Yet technology marched forward, and still does today. Will we continue to march over our fellow humans? Especially those who are most vulnerable to losing their livelihoods to automation and technology?

I hope that Maya Angelou was correct when she said “…when you know better, do better”. This is why we must be preparing our humanities majors to not only take part in, but to be leaders in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We need our sociologists, psychologists, economists, geographers, linguists, ethicists and anthropologists to make sure we are watching out for the humans. We need to have the complicated discussions about what happens to the already-growing inequities between developing countries and the modern world? Will women and people of color be left even further behind? How do we address the job loses that will come, especially for people who are not going to benefit from additional training for a more advanced job?

Last night at dinner after the conference I found myself in the midst of a lively conversation about the quintessential question posed by Dr. Alan Turing, “Do machines think?”. I was the lone non-STEM professional at the table (maybe in the whole room), I thoroughly enjoyed listening to those brilliant PhDs come down on all sides of the question. My own answer was on the side of yes, they can think, but not in the way humans think. The conversation stuck with me. I believe whether or not machines can think is less the point than the fact that humans CAN and DO think. That requires us to not shy away from the difficult conversations that we need to be having right now. Yes, it is exciting to see what we can build and how far we can take technology. We will always do that because that’s what our species does. It’s time to stop wondering what will happen to people in the midst of all the robots and automation and start working diligently toward the creation of solutions. 

On Monday it’s back to work, out of the bubble of academia that I have enjoyed this week. I will be initiating these kinds of conversations with my colleagues. They are mostly from STEM fields and will certainly push me to think harder about what I perceive the risks to be and the ways in which we might approach finding some answers. I will also enlist my colleagues who are from the arts and business fields to start thinking about this. The saying “if we can land a man on the moon” points to human ingenuity when we are presented with challenges. In the context of Industry 4.0, if we can create a driverless car, we can find ways to keep the former drivers contributing to the new economy.

IpX Academia Director Staci Hegarty
Connect with IpX Academia Director Staci Hegarty on LinkedIn.
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