Earlier this year I was asked to give a Keynote on the topic of Brand Humanizing, robotization, and AI. The hosts had given it the title: “Help, the robots are coming!” and wanted me to explain if technology were to become a threat or an aid. My opening statement was: “Give me 20 minutes and I’ll transform the title into ‘the robots are coming to help’ and eliminate all fear”. So there I was, talking about the main benefits of technology taking over processes and, from a Brand Humanizing perspective, how people would become more human and interact more. One of my main arguments of the latter was that people, unlike robots, are able to connect with other humans and have genuine conversations.

My grandmother might be talking to robots

Immediately following my talk was my Q&A which I always do straight after presenting. One of the attendees touched upon what I said about robots not being able to have (genuine) conversations with humans and how she felt that wasn’t true. She gave me an example of a robot built on conversational AI through (natural language understanding) that’s roaming elderly homes. The purpose of this machine is to talk to the elderly who are feeling lonely and provide them with some company. She added: “It’s genuine and feels like a human because the robot can memorize the conversation and touch upon earlier subjects and remarks. That way, people feel like it’s caring and genuine.”

What followed was a discussion about ethics, human interaction and caring, but first, let me share some research I’ve done after that Keynote. I wanted to get to know the robot that potentially talks to my grandmother, so I looked it up.

It can remember your conversation, but does it actually give a sh*t?

Let me state that I’m all for finding solutions to fight loneliness. But there’s a catch to this one, and that’s what led to the discussion about using robots in this instance. The Robot that’s currently being used in elderly homes in the Netherlands is put there to talk to people and keep them engaged. It’s developed by a major university together with a service and knowledge providing corporate (I refrain from using company names, as I’m not opposed to them nor the robot, I only want to address this social issue).

The main benefit, also according to the attendee of my Keynote, is the fact that it can memorize conversations. This way, the person on the other end of this piece of AI has the feeling it’s engaged in genuine conversation. In other words: if you tell the robot your teeth fell out during your afternoon walk, 2 days later it might ask you if your dentures are still in place.

But isn’t the fundament of being genuine to actually “care”? Personally, I don’t think the robots truly cares but is just showing signs of empathy because its developers told it to do so.

It’s not THAT we use it, but HOW we use it

However, I’m not hating on the technology, especially because it’s built to serve a good cause. The problem I have with it is HOW we use this technology. This is where the discussion continued because the attendee made a case for the robot to talk to the elderly because the caretakers (the employees of these homes) simply don’t have the time for small talk. Instead, they’re busy running the operations by doing dishes, washing clothes and simply doing the tasks/processes that come with running an elderly home.

This is exactly why I do what I do (if you’re curious what that is, check it out here). We have robots talking to real people and we have real people running processes and doing physical labor. As a matter of fact:

“They don’t talk to people, because they don’t have the time for it in between doing laundry and sweeping floors”.

This is the perfect example of having robots doing people jobs and people doing robot jobs. Why don’t we have robots sweep the floors and running dishes so that we can free up that time to have the caretakers take care of the people? Sure, one might forget about the dentures to fall out of old Mrs. Sanders mouth, but it does care about how she feels and what her life is all about. A caretaker shows empathy, but not based on an algorithm but based on genuine person to person interactions.

Calling Customer Service

Actually, in regards to “genuine person to person interactions” I have a great example that shows we shouldn’t just let robots run the show. As a matter of fact, the example I’m talking about was discussed in this Medium post by Kai-Fu Lee. He talks about a robot that was developed to accompany the elderly and also (through touchscreens) allow them to run tasks like ordering food or calling their doctor. It sounds like a great product, however, the customer service department was flooded with phone calls from its elderly users.

But these users weren’t calling about technical difficulties and they weren’t in need of any support on the product side. In fact, they contacted Technical Support for a chat…..a chit chat. To talk about memories of their childhood and their family.

Personally, I don’t think the robots truly cares but is just showing signs of empathy because its developers told it to do so.

So you see, we can create machines and make them super intelligent. We’re capable of having robots simulate (not feel, simulate) empathy and remember details about your stories. That’s very impressive, but we shouldn’t have machines do what we humans do best…..make genuine connections, care, feel and build relationships. Especially when, at the same time and place, humans are running robotic tasks.

What do you think? Should robots fight loneliness by taking over the care of the elderly or should it free up time for humans so we can take care of other people ourselves?