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As robots are becoming increasingly present in factories, hospitals and people’s homes, the European Parliament has established a Working Group on legal challenges related to the development of robotics and Artificial Intelligence. Will robots replace humans or will people tame Artificial Intelligence and make it serve the humanity? What is the difference between robots and humans or to be precise, how the effects of human work differ from the results achieved by robots? Why do we value human work differently than the work of a robot? Mateusz Halawa, Head of the Humanities and Social Sciences Team at SWPS University’s School of Form answers these questions.

Since robots are becoming increasingly present in all areas of life, the Commission wants to ensure that robots “will remain in service of humans”, noted Mady Delvaux, a representative of the European Commission. The quoted phrase echoes the fears found in science-fiction literature, including classic stories of robots’ rights and dystopian visions, where robots take over the world. As the cyberpunk writer William Gibson said: “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed”. While the European Parliament is working on the legal framework for a new type of persons, i.e. for “digital persons”, we learn that in California, car manufacturers are testing driverless vehicles that analyze road conditions and circumstances as they drive, which in the long run will lead to making ethically charged choices. Who should be spared in the face of collision? Should the passengers of the car die, if it would help to save the lives of more people on the road?

Humans in the World of Robots

Humanities and social sciences, two disciplines that traditionally have focused on human relations, are attempting to catch up with these technological developments. However, more and more often media present social situations that involve not only human relations, but also relations between people and various technologies. Social scientists increasingly focus on the worlds and “beings” created by means of a digital code. There are new programs of study devoted to these issues, called Software Studies, which indicate that our world, to a large degree, is shaped by algorithms, which decide what you read, what is your credit score, and who will be presented to you by an online dating application. Philosophers such as Grégoire Chamayou study drone technology that has been changing our approach to the ethics of war. In Japan, psychologists have been observing uncommonly close and tender relationships that develop between elderly people and Paro - robotic seals, in care homes. On the other hand, sociologists and economists question the future of work and the social order based on labor relations in the world, where close to 50 percent of all jobs currently performed by people will be taken over by robots.

Roboty SOF
Roboty SOF

Photos: property of School of Form

Digital Education

Taking into consideration the huge impact of robotics on our everyday lives, it is surprising that this technology is still barely present in education. Digital solutions begin to appear in schools and in higher education institutions, but they do not allow users to become active participants in the digital culture. Who else but the young generation should become the driving force behind the development of new technologies? Who else but the young people should consider the directions in which the new technologies ought to be going? For the past few years at School of Form, under the guidance of two designers, Dr. Oskar Zięta, inventor of the FIDU technology for shaping steel under pressure, and Dr. Krzysztof Kubasek, designer of the EMYS robot, which supports language learning and is capable of expressing emotions, students of Industrial Design have been gazing into the robotized future.

In a project comparing the work of people and robots, students experimented with traditional craft. Could a robot learn traditional crafts, since arts and crafts are a symbol of highly skilled human work highly valued for its quality? To answer this questions, students worked not only with designers and programmers, but also with philosophers from School of Form, e.g. with Dr. Joanna Malinowska, who posed the following questions: “What is the difference between a craftsman and a robot that for now is not capable of creating new designs, but can perfectly reproduce a design that it has learned? If robots were aware of their existence and were capable of feeling satisfaction from their work, would we value their creations more? What makes a hand-made product unique? Is it the one-of-a-kind quality, resulting from the inability of humans to produce exactly the same pattern by hand every time, a characteristic that is not present in objects produced by robots?"

If robots were aware of their existence and were capable of feeling satisfaction from their work, would we value their creations more?

During the project, one group of students practiced calligraphy, a highly artistic skill that for centuries has been regarded as an expression of humanistic values, self-discipline, meditation and experience, gained over time by a person devoted to the craft. Other groups focused on tattoo and confectionary arts. The longer the students analyzed their handy work and the more skillfully they translated human work into the computer program that would instruct the robots, the more material their answers to philosophical questions about the future of robotics became. The answers were found in the objects that were produced during the experiment. They showed that not only human skills, but also the mistakes or imperfections of products will not disappear from human culture, any time soon. Students have also discovered that code writing is a skill and a craft, and the best way to show the value of machine-made objects is to appreciate the work of people who produce and program the machines.

At the same time, the students re-evaluated the meaning of craftsmanship in the 21st century. They rejected the visions of a totally robotized world and instead, they focused on the lasting value of human experience. As the result, they assigned jobs to people and robots according to their strengths. The robots were charged with cumbersome and repetitive tasks, while people were responsible for the overall project and for its creative aspects. One of the groups wondered whether the conflict between the cold rationality of robots and the diversity of human emotions can be solved. Can robot produce something that will move a human being? To answer this questions, students programmed the robots to produce clay forms to the rhythm of a human heart. This automated process resulted in a series of one-of-a-kind objects. Enthusiastic reactions of students to this experiment show that technology may be less threatening, if the division of work between humans and robots is aligned with their strengths and is in keeping with humanistic values.

European law-makers are trying to prepare societies for the robotized future. The new generation of designers wants to add digital code for programming robots to their creative toolbox. As every new relationship, the human-robot relationship provides a glimmer of hope, but also stirs many doubts. In the upcoming years, designers, engineers and experts in humanities will concentrate on these doubts and much will be riding on the ability to find a common ground for people and robots.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Mateusz Halawa – Head of the Humanities and Social Sciences Team at SWPS University’s School of Form, graduated from the University of Warsaw with a degree in sociology. Currently, he is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research, in New York, where he has been working with students of the Parsons School of Design and the team from the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought. Assistant at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), where he conducts ethnographic research and cultural analysis of the economic aspects of life. Former strategic consultant and quality researcher at Millward Brown. Recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship and grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP).